I want to talk about another word that is used to demean and diminish older people. This time Kavan’s the one getting in dustups over a word, with no less than two of the most influential figures in American culture — Oprah and AARP.
This word is one of the most disabling and demeaning five letter words in the English language. It derives its power largely from our culture’s collective fear of age and aging. Can you guess what word I’m talking about?
In American society, older people are accorded respect and allowed to maintain their standing as an adult only to the degree that they can still…
Everyone understands this game and knows how it’s played. Nieces and nephews boast, “My Aunt Myrtle, she still drives.” Sons and daughters brag “My Dad, he’s 82, and you better believe it, he still works five days a week.” Not even great-grandchildren can resist — “Ohpah turned 94 this month. He just got back from climbing Pike’s Peak. He’s in Florida and he still water skis— barefoot— in the nude!”
AARP loves to praise active older adults and celebrities who are still… For example, last week they tweeted:
@AARP Broadway legend Chita Rivera is still fabulous–and it’s her 80th Birthday. Cheers to Chita!
Kavan (@ChangingAging) tweeted back:
@AARP Chita Rivera is fabulous — period. Lose the “still”, it’s revolting to characterize people’s worth by what they can “still” do.
We live in an age when older people are deemed worthy only to the degree that, in their thoughts and actions, they resemble young people. This ethos is very rigidly applied and we all know what happens to older people who can’t still do the things that adults are supposed to do.
The word “still” is intended as praise but actually serves to wound and diminish older people. The prominent place it holds in our lexicon, reminds us that, when it comes to people living in the latter decades of life, success is defined by the absence of “change, interruption, or cessation.” It is a peculiar conception of human life that equates “success” with a lack of change. Our use of the word “still” reveals an ordinarily unstated assumption: In contemporary American society, any deviation from the parameters of vigorous adulthood, by definition, carries the stigma of failure.
The contradictions that bedevil this position become obvious as soon as we apply its tenets to childhood. It is hard to imagine someone like famed child psychologist Dr. Benjamin Spock endorsing an approach to childhood that was based on thwarting the normal processes of growth, change and development. The idea of health and wellness programs for children designed and intended to delay and, if possible, prevent the passage of young people out of childhood and into adulthood would violate some of our most basic social norms.
Older adults obsessed with retaining their youthfulness might pride themselves on their devotion to common sense and they do resist aging with an energetic persistence, but they are also deeply misguided. Healthy happy people are meant to grow and there are crucial moments in our lives when that growth compels us to leave one stage of the human lifecycle, and enter into the next. It is our culture’s inability to see the value of “life beyond adulthood” that traps them in a desperate and ultimately doomed effort to continue living as adults.
This is the tyranny of ‘still’.