We Have Few Words for Stages of Development Past Sixty-five.
It’s a misnomer, but I’ve been calling myself middle aged even though I’m a Medicare card-carrying senior.
Isn’t it presumptuous to call oneself middle-aged under any circumstances? We don’t know when we’ll shuffle off this mortal coil, so how can we know if we’re still in mid-life and not close to the end?
Statistically, I’m past the middle of my life. Possibly, I have a third to go, but I could be gone tomorrow. In my reality, I’m still in the thick of it: active in mind and body: writing more than ever, engaged at home and in my community, rich in family and friends, debt-free. I have only one complaint: Why do we have so few words for the stages of life past sixty-five?
Words abound for the stages of life from birth to sixty: newborn, infant, toddler, tyke, preschooler, child, pupil, pre-teen, tween, teen, adolescent, young adult, twenty-something, working parent, thirty-something, middle-aged. These words become fewer and fewer as we age, as if aging is a desert, devoid of growth and learning. The lexicon for those of us living past sixty-five has only three stages: senior, retired, and dead.
I’m a Senior. I’ve retired from one job and refocused my energy on two others; and I’m most definitely not dead. I’m alive and engaged without being harried by dating and mating and raising young.
I’m still feathering my nest. Most recently, we had the first-floor doorways widened and thresholds removed, including one into the shower. That’s for later, when we’re older and less mobile. The greenhouse is for now, because no matter how much my husband and I say we want to shrink the garden, we’re clearly incapable of doing so. For mysterious reasons, we seem compelled to grow food as well as forage in the grocery and the woods. It must be primal. Recently, I learned to hunt, adding venison to our diet. It’s hard to articulate in just a few words what prompted me on this path or how satisfying it is, so I’m writing a book.
I’m also mulling over the words used to describe elders but that say nothing about our development along the way. For instance, “toddler” describes the newly ambulatory; “retired” says nothing about what a retiree does. Furthermore, most of these words for elders tend to be gendered in ways that those of childhood aren’t: geezer, old man, grandpa; old lady, crone and granny. The exception might be Silver Fox – an oldster in a sexual relationship with someone decades younger.
Fifty is when I underwent a second adolescence. My reproductive biology turning off wasn’t nearly as traumatic as when it turned on, but it did trigger a preoccupation with my physical self, complete with worry about my appearance – which keeps changing. Just as my body changed from girl to woman to mother, its shape shifted yet again to the essential me – me without reference to reproduction, just pleasure. In this phase, I’ve run a half marathon, learned to scull, hiked the Long Trail, the Chilkoot Trail and the Grand Canyon, and I’ve biked the Great Allegheny Passage and the Parc Linear du Nord – so far. I’ve also given up some childish ways, like standing on a swivel chair to reach the top shelves in the kitchen, dyeing my hair and speeding.
It’s true: I’ve slowed down. I see this as a sign of maturity – the wisdom that can come with age, but is not guaranteed. And this is important: seniors can still make mistakes – fall for scams, crash cars and change in multitudinous deleterious ways – not just decline. We can also change for the better. I’m belatedly becoming kind. For as long as I’m living, the possibility for growth exists.
Language is Lagging. Suggestions, please.
But longevity is a recent phenomenon, and language is lagging. The Greeks identified five ages and the Romans four. By 1599, when Shakespeare is believed to have written As You Like it, there were seven: infant, school-boy, lover, soldier, justice, old man and second childishness. It’s long past time to increase our vocabulary for the opportunities and changes ahead. But to what?
If becoming a senior is the end of middle age, then I’d like to mark this graduation with commencement, the start of something new. Is there a Masters in Aging? A PhD? I invite you to leave your suggestions for the stages of development from sixty-five to one hundred in the comments below.
Stay well, Deborah.
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