One of the nice “keep up the good work” responses to my mass email last week came from my friend Robin. Her note went on to say that, “Even my mom, who just died at 95, wasn’t an ‘old lady.’ Up until the last few days she really fought like a tiger . . . until her body just gave out. She simply died of old age.” She had lived with debilitating arthritis that set in in her late 40s, and “found a lot of meaning knitting baby items endlessly for the City of Hope and other charities.” Female, in her ninth decade, yet not an old lady? Robin’s loss was so recent that I resisted the impulse to point out that this sounded a lot like age denial, but it got me thinking.
“Little old lady” is clearly a demeaning descriptor; “old lady” less so. Robin was repudiating the term in anti-ageist solidarity . . . or was she? I ran the exchange past an acquaintance who’d been speaking fondly of her Armenian grandmother, who’d died the year before at 101, physically agile, affected by severe short-term memory loss that pretty much compelled to live in the moment, content and cheerful. “My grandmother wasn’t an old lady either,” was his response. Why not? “It seemed like there was still so much life in her.”
What changes if we swap “woman” for “lady?” An overdue and obvious upgrade, but it still leaves “old” stuck in the craw, and there’s the rub. You hear people say “I don’t feel old” all the time. What they mean is “I don’t feel ugly.” Or useless. Or helpless—or any of the other bad things for which “old” has become an all-purpose placeholder. To Robin, it meant idle. To my Armenian acquaintance, tired out. To a guy who came up to me after a recent talk, enfeebled. “My aunt’s 90 but she’s not old,” he insisted, as though it were contagious, and as though I’d approve of his distancing delusion.
To reflexively choose “not old” as an identity, whether for ourselves or our relatives, impoverishes us all. It robs us of the chance to form community, and strips away the experience that distinguishes paddler from pilot, sapling from sequoia, novitiate from seasoned hand, and from the pains and perks attendant to both states. There’s pride in “old” if we claim it, as the Older Women’s League and Old Lesbians Organizing for Change have done, and much to be gained in refuting its equation with loss and decline.
I know I’m not young—do not call me “young lady”—but I don’t think of myself as old either. I certainly qualify, if oldness is measured by time from birth or defined by my laptop’s dictionary: “having lived a long time.” I prefer “older,” which emphasizes that age is a spectrum. I reject the old/young binary: that imaginary line in the sand after which it’s all supposed to be downhill. The problem lies in equating “old” with diminishment alone. The reality, as experience proves, is far more nuanced and positive.