In one of William Shakespeare’s most famous lines, Juliet asks Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Today’s baby boomers beg to differ. No longer is granny or grandmother by and large an acceptable term, for instance, as the modern notion of aging has changed drastically with the increasing number of baby boomers daily reaching “senior” status at age 65. Those who sang along with The Beatles asking “will you still need me when I’m 64” or sang along with The Who talking about “My Generation” not getting old are now facing their own old age and impending mortality. Shifting cultural changes leave us all asking questions about growing old.
Just how is the “me” generation defining itself in light of growing old? And why does that self-definition matter when talking about health care and options for aging? Let’s start with Juliet’s question: what’s in a name? Those of us who work with an aging population often struggle with finding appropriate terminology. How should we respectfully and accurately describe the older adults who are our clients? Should we refer to them as older? As aging? As elderly? As seniors or senior citizens? Generationally, a lot of people just aren’t ready to be someone’s granny, and there’s an app for that. Apple now features the Grandparent Nicknames App, or, if you still want to go old school, right next to the baby name books, you can now find books with new-fashioned grandparent names. We’re not the only ones who are confused, though. Even among the older population, there are generational discrepancies that reveal it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all type of label.
Varsity Branding (www.varsitybranding.com) has gathered information about this very topic that they’ve published in their white paper “From the Outside In: Insights into Prospect Decision-Making/Findings from Project Looking Glass III.”
As part of their research, Varsity gauged study participants’ reaction to age-descriptive language, including the term “senior.” The responses were similar among different generational categories. What Varsity defines as “the GI generation” proudly wear the title “senior” and feel they’ve earned it. While what Varsity terms the “transitional generation” isn’t necessarily happy with the term “senior,” they also are more accepting of the term. For the baby boomers, however, it’s a different story: the term “senior” is a negative descriptor that they don’t ever want to apply to themselves except, as Varsity points out, “in Wendy’s.”
Similarly, the word “retirement” had different connotations based on the generation. For the GI generation, “retirement” was a wonderful concept. The transitional generation begins distinguishing between “retirement” as a term applied to leaving a job versus a term applied to lifestyle, and the baby boomers saw “retirement” as a “foreign term” as applied to their lives.
How these different generations perceive their roles, their legacies, and their lifestyles makes a drastic difference in their expectations as they age. As Adair Lara writes in her article published at www.more.com, “’Grandma’ is my mother’s mother, with her white braid wrapped around her head.” Culturally, we’ve connected the term grandmother with the suggestion of a much older woman who is, for some reason, necessarily frumpy. Lara, as a grandmother herself, describes “the new G-Mother” as having “short red hair, a Mini Cooper, frequent-flier miles, and an iPod in her Kate Spade bag” instead.
Has anything actually changed about growing old, or are these generational reactions simply a function of changing perspectives? Yes, a lot has changed in the realm of health and medical care that does impact our lives and the aging process. For starters, our life spans are longer now than even 50 or 60 years ago. On average, we’re living anywhere from 10 to 20 years longer now, and we’re living with more options to keep us healthy. Joint replacement surgeries weren’t even performed until the 1960s, for instance, while now they’re commonplace. We know more about early detection and are more successful at treating some diseases that previously would have either gone undetected or would have been untreatable. We’re often able to provide a better quality of life for a longer period of time through medical advances. But that doesn’t mean that the baby boomers have a magical formula to defy aging. In fact, the reality of their generation’s aging process may actually contradict their desired image of themselves as they age.
Next month we’ll take a look at how baby boomers are actually aging and how the changing image of aging is changing traditional expectations.