We’re biased against old age, and banishing our bias starts with changing our language. 2

from book

When you hear the word “old,” what comes to mind? Don’t try to come up with the “right” answer. Just take note of whatever pops into your head. Professor Guy Micco asks this question of his new medical graduate students every year at the University of California, Berkeley. If you’re like most of them, you probably listed things like “wrinkled,” “bald” or “bent over.” Maybe you also included “frail,” “feeble,” “sick” or “fragile.” These associations classify aging as a descent from the pleasures of youth to the difficulties of old age. This bias is, in part, a matter of unfamiliarity. For the vast majority of human history, most people never reached old age. As a result, humankind has had more time to study children and adults. But now, with baby boomers hitting retirement at a rate of 10,000 people per day, older people need the attention we’ve historically directed elsewhere. It’s also a matter of classification. We tend to think of “old age” as a period of uniformity, a blank expanse of useless years. At some point, around age 75, we’re old, and it’s all downhill from there. The US government’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) also fails to acknowledge the diversity of old age. The CDC’s recommendations for the types of care people should get at different ages vary depending on which category you fall under – child, adult or older person. For children – that is, people under 18 – there are 17 subcategories. For adults, there are five subcategories. People over 60, however, all fall into one group. This implies that there’s no difference between a healthy 70-year-old and a debilitated 90-year-old. Too often this results in older people not getting the care they need. According to the author, Louise Aronson, changing the way we talk about aging is the first step toward dismantling bias and embracing old age as the vibrant time it can be. What language might be better? Well, there’s a second part to Guy Micco’s exercise. He also asks his students to react to the word “elder.” These responses are, without fail, far less pejorative, including words like “wise,” “power,” “experience” and “knowledge.” Therefore, Aronson proposes a new word for old age – “elderhood.”