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Say What?: Old

At what age are we actually considered old? Many of us spend years saving for retirement. We plan for the golden years. Conversations about retirement may start in early adulthood as you begin investing for the future in a 401K. Because we often consider the golden years to start after one retires, many consider age 65 and over as … well, “old.” When you research the definition of old, many dictionaries define old as “having lived many years” and “no longer young.”

Synonyms of the word old, including elderly, aged, senior, ancient, antique and even senile, do not paint a positive image of the golden years.

Many of my friends and family who have retired are busier than ever. Whether they are traveling, spending time with grandkids, meeting friends for meals, volunteering or exercising, I don’t see them as “old.” I see them as redefining aging.

The Role of Perception

It is important to note that perception of age plays a key role in defining the word “old.” As I am aging, I find myself saying, “age is relative.” When in college, I considered anyone aged 50 or above as old and 50 seemed to be lightyears away. Fast forward three decades and as I approach 50 years of age, I don’t even remotely consider 50 to be old. Likewise, when my 87-year-old grandfather lived at Fairhaven Community many years ago, he would refer to fellow residents as, “all the old people that live here,” yet he did not consider himself in that category.

Working in the senior living profession, many people refer to those who reside in our communities as “elderly.” I serve as a preceptor for medical dietetic students and have guest lectured at The Ohio State University and Heidelberg University to students planning to enter the healthcare field. When I ask them to tell me what they picture when they hear the word “elderly,” I generally hear the same response: “little old lady or man with gray hair and glasses sitting in a wheelchair.” Without realizing it, they unintentionally applied a label to categorize an older adult.

Defining Elderly

For nearly a century, the general public, churches, healthcare institutions, educators and government agencies have also labeled these individuals as “elderly.” Society has applied other words, including seniors, senior citizens and elders. Growing up in my church, our youth group made cookies at the holidays to take to our “shut-in’s.” Our UCH history tells us we referred to our earliest residents as “inmates” back in 1920. Like the word “old,” various dictionaries offer similar definitions of the words elderly and identify those over 65 years of age in these negative terms.

Culture Change: I LIVE IT

As our organization moves forward on our culture-change journey to fully engage in person-directed care, we recognize the language we use directly affects those we serve.

As we strive to create “home,” we must deinstitutionalize the way we speak. Many of us have worked in the senior living/long-term care/housing profession for many years, thus changing our language is not easy. However, we recognize the importance of the words we use in our daily interactions with residents, families, volunteers and each other, and we are committed to learning a new vocabulary that promotes community, wholeness and peace for all.

Each week we introduce a new word from our culture change vocabulary to our staff and Rev. Becky King, pastor at Fairhaven Community, shares these “old and new words” with residents during weekly chapel services. There were vast differences in their interpretations between the words elderly and older adults.

When sharing their thoughts of the word elderly, they stated “they” are: older, old, sickly, feeble, “my older sister” and “older than we are.” Yet their impressions of older adults are: well-seasoned people, experienced, parents, grandma/grandpa, knowledgeable, wise beyond years. Their responses were very enlightening in regard to the power of words and the stigma that is attached to them. They don’t see themselves as old, sick and feeble; they see themselves as people who have lived and have much knowledge and wisdom they can share from their experiences. We can learn from them, if we only take the time to listen.

As we continue our culture-change transformation, we do so recognizing all individuals want to be heard, be offered choices, have their decisions respected and dignity preserved. By using words that affirm a person’s worth, promote dignity and respect, we are one step closer to creating Abundant Life.

About Amy Kotterman

Amy KottermanAmy Kotterman RD, LD graduated from The Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in medical dietetics. She is the director of Hospitality Services for United Church Homes where she has been employed 27 years. Amy provides guidance and assistance to the communities to create a home environment that supports abundant aging and culture change initiatives. She is leading the culture change transformation throughout UCH through education and implementation of person-directed initiatives including the Hospitality: I LIVE it program, UCH culture change vocabulary and Comfort Matters dementia education program. Amy also oversees resident engagement and satisfaction. In addition, Amy works with the directors of dining services and culinary chefs to enhance the dining experience for UCH communities.

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