I’ve known about ageism for a long time, but I received my first real shock about its pervasiveness in the office of one of Portland’s top-rated gerontologists. I was accompanying my mother, Alice, who was ninety-four at the time, to her first appointment. The doctor and three members of her team came in for a brief interview before the physical exam.
Although shy and overwhelmed by her recent move from Iowa to Oregon, Alice proceeded to put all four strangers at ease. She answered questions with a keen sense of self and her usual wit. No shtick. They laughed with her, took notes, and left her to change into an exam gown.
When I stepped into the hall to get some water, I heard the small team talking to one another without the head doctor present. They were no longer laughing with Alice but at her. They called her “cute” and “adorable.” She was neither of those things at any point in her life, except perhaps as a small child.
They’d instantly objectified her – my mother, who had the weight of an incredibly difficult history behind her and the adjustment to a new place ahead of her, and yet who could be funny, hold her head high, and engage people in a conversation that she, not they, had made interesting and worth their while. I knew in that moment that I needed to be a tough advocate for her within a system that sought to treat her as an old person, perhaps an “adorable” person with all the casual diminishment that implies, and not simply as a person.
Some words are used specifically to make the perceived “other” uncomfortable. We don’t talk about them as much, but we’re all aware of terms meant to marginalize old women, too: old biddy, hag, crazy old bag, crackpot, etc. But there are also problematic words that have been formulated in the unconsciousness that comes murmuring along with the rest of the stream of life and which the majority of people accept without examining.
Cute, adorable, and sweet when applied to older women fit into this mix (see my previous column, The Sweetie Boat, but other words that used to seem benign to me now look troublesome because they also erase the unique individual and substitute a person easier to objectify, deal with, push around, or ignore – a sort of vocabulary of erasure.
Below are a few examples, along with why they’re objectionable.
Spry: Lazy short story writers and novelists are especially fond of this word when describing an old person, but others use it, too. It’s hard to pin down what it means – someone with the strength to swat a fly or someone who can hit a hole in one? Someone flexible? Energetic? Vigorous? An ice skater? Marathon runner? Capable of the Tantric Butterfly?
Because humans possess a range of physical capabilities at every age, it’s reasonable to just name the capability we’re thinking of when we’re feeling tempted to say, or write, “spry,” e.g., “She does yoga every morning for an hour and a half.”
“Spry” is never used to describe anyone under fifty. We don’t hear people say, “Wow, that third grader is really spry, isn’t she?” Or, “I’m so attracted to the spry woman who just became Director of Marketing.” If a word or phrase is only used to describe old people, that should be the first clue that it’s not worth much.
Feisty: Children are sometimes called feisty, meaning spirited but not in a very agreeable way. It’s rarely used to describe anyone pleasant to be around, and its usage is pretty sparse when describing anyone between 20 and 60. After 60, fountains of feistiness gush all over the place.
Applied to the old woman, it can mean that she’s able to stand up for herself but nobody much likes it. “She’s a feisty old woman” conjures up someone who is going around being some way she isn’t supposed to be at her age – that naughty, combative, non-compliant old thing! She should just behave.
Maybe such a person has dignity and she doesn’t want people trampling on it, so she pushes back. Instead of labeling her as feisty, we might consider that possibility.
Lively: Oh, the twinkle in her old eye, the spring in her old step, the gusto in her old voice, the rising of her old libido, and so on and so forth – a miracle, really, that she’s around at all and yet she manages to be lively. Bless her old heart.
Crotchety: An old person is not an alien set down among the human race. She doesn’t need a special term to describe her when she’s angry. Anger is anger, and often it’s justified. Before using this term, we might ask ourselves if we would feel anger given the circumstances that the supposedly crotchety person is experiencing. “Crotchety” whittles real emotion down to a cliché and thus erases it.
Still: As in, are you still practicing yoga for an hour and a half each morning? Are you still working? Do you still drive/read/go for walks/take French lessons/have a pet/cook your own meals/teach/garden/make love/ride your horse/kayak/go shopping/breathe?
Imagine how many times a person can be asked questions with the word “still” in them before wanting to visit an actual still and try to lift her spirits there? It’s not the occasional use that’s bothersome; it’s the accumulated weight of the word, day after day, month after month, and on into years. Are you still here?
After a time, what you’re hearing is that you should either stop doing these things or the end of them is in your near future. As if you didn’t know that.
Here’s a particularly insulting article on all the things you can do if your “loved one” still insists on doing her own laundry in order to make a show of her independence, damn her hide anyway.
Crone: This term is supposed to do the opposite of erasing us. It’s meant to make us feel better, but does it? As a friend recently said, the word “crone” takes all the fun out of witchiness. It gained popularity among feminists when Mary Daly gave it a new spin back in the 1970s in her book Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism.
Soon people started having crone parties when they turned fifty. Some of the parties I went to were lots of fun, but there was an underlying assumption that years bring with them the wisdom of the crone. I’m not so sure. If you’re not at all wise when you’re younger, why should you become wise simply because a lot of birthdays have piled up? From what I see in my wisest of friends, gaining wisdom is something people work pretty hard at. It’s earned. Nobody’s entitled to it and nobody should expect it. If we mean to describe a woman as wise, we could say, “She’s a wise woman.” If she’s not wise, we can wisely be silent on the subject.
The above are just a few of the words that have made me scratch my head and wonder why they should stay in use. We don’t need language that’s lazy, that misleads, that reduces real emotion down to nothing. Speaking these words in either neutral or gentle tones doesn’t mask what’s behind them, and what’s behind them is destructive. Their use leads to people internalizing the messages that come tied to them, and there’s plenty of evidence that shows this can harm one’s sense of well being, self respect, even health.
Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Catamaran, Travelers’ Tales, J Journal (John Jay College, CUNY), So to Speak, Northwest Review, Calyx, The Ledge, Willow Springs, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in anthologies, most recently in Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press). You can find out more at andreacarlisle.com.