Getting Old, Getting Loud: Be Proud of the “O” Word

Older Americans: Stop asking forgiveness. It’s time to own your age.

(Originally published in the Dallas Morning News)

Remember that momentous moment in 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres confessed on network television: “Yep, I’m gay”?

And today, isn’t hard to believe that stirred up such a fuss?

Of course, Ellen is gay, and it’s no big deal.  But it was a bold declaration at the time, and the beginning of a sea change in public opinion.

I think it’s time for another “Ellen moment” for another demographic group. One that might be equally liberating.

Just once, I’d like to hear someone famous boldly declare, “Yep, I’m old!”

Hidden Figures

A few years ago, for a story, I polled dozens of people with the question, “At what age does a person become old?”  Many interviewees – especially Boomers in their 60s and 70s – resisted giving an answer. A few were even offended by the question.

I tried probing. “Wouldn’t you agree that, by 90, it’s safe to say that a person is old?” I’d ask. No. “Then how about 100?” No dice.

“You’re only as old as you feel,” the old-age deniers insisted. Or, “Age is just a number.”

Age may just be a number, but 90 is a really different number than 40, no matter how good you feel.  And if it was “just” a number, California legislators wouldn’t have felt compelled to pass a law last year requiring to remove ages of actors and directors who don’t want the numbers published on the website.

Supporters described the law as an effort to “combat age discrimination,” because actors, especially females, get passed over for roles as they get older.  (A judge recently blocked the law.)

But think about that for a minute. The way to stop age discrimination is to pass a law to enable older people to go underground?  Old age is so embarrassing and shameful that we need to legally protect the right to hide it?

Fifty may be the new 40, but our ultimate biological destiny remains the same. People get old. Either you die young or you live long enough to get old.  You may stay a healthy and active, but at some point, you’re no longer young or middle-aged. You’re old.

Why not just admit that? What are we so afraid of?

Fighting Ageism

I think some of the confusion relates to fighting ageism.

Thanks to advances in fitness, nutrition and health, many of us can and do stay active and vital much longer than our counterparts in previous generations.  Wonderful.

There’s no reason to stop doing something just because you’ve turned 50, or 60, or 70.  Agreed.

And it’s unfair and ridiculous to write anyone off based just on chronological age. Of course.

But ageism differs from racism and sexism, according to Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

“For one, the discriminated group is one that (with a little luck) we all eventually join,” she said.

And while racism and sexism rely on stereotypes and false generalizations, there are some things that are simply true about aging. Physical and cognitive capacities decline. If you’re lucky, the decline is mild and manageable. For some of us, old age eventually means becoming frail and feeble, through no fault of our own.

One day medical science may change that. But in the meantime, why pretend otherwise with smarmy euphemisms about the “golden years” of those “65 and better”?

People get old. It’s a fact. We can fight ageism without pretending old age doesn’t exist. We can admit to the realities of old age without giving in to them. We can embrace getting older, even while we fight the decline of aging with everything we’ve got.

Embracing the O Word

Please don’t say that Ronni Bennett is “76 years young.” She might slug you. She’s “old” and that’s the only word she’ll allow to describe it.

But Bennett, who blogs about aging at, understands why people loathe the “O” word. She notices the way late-night comedians constantly make jokes about old people or aging. And she bemoans the lack of realistic but positive models of aging.

“In our culture, the only way to be a ‘good’ old person is by skydiving or bungee jumping – in other words, acting like a young person,” she said.

Here’s the thing.   If we’re not open and honest about the reality of aging – how can we have a real conversation about aging gracefully, about continuing to contribute and live meaningfully as we get older?

How can we embrace the blessings of later life, if we’re preoccupied with maintaining the fiction that nobody really gets old?

I’m 57. I’m a little more forgetful and I yearn for my youthful metabolism, but in general my fifties have been my happiest, most productive and contented decade so far.   And research shows that’s not just me being Grandma Pollyanna, nor is it uncommon.

“Aging brings some rather remarkable improvements — increased knowledge, expertise — and emotional aspects of life improve,” Carstensen said. “That’s right, older people are happy. They’re happier than middle-aged people, and younger people, certainly.” (She adds that her undergraduate students, feeling pressure to enjoy the “best years of their lives,” find that reassuring.)

The Word That Must Not Be Named

It’s true that, if we admit being old, we risk becoming irrelevant.    That’s a bed the youth-obsessed Boomers made, and now we’re having to lie in it.

But we’ve also changed every other phase of life, and there’s plenty of work to be done in terms of changing the way our society looks at older people. In some cultures, elders are revered and honored. They get the best seat at the table. To claim that place of honor, we’ll have to admit that we’re old.

I joke with my 20-something friends about being an “old lady.”  I don’t feel old, but I’m pretty sure they think I am. Why?  At age 26, I thought my 50-year-old boss was old.  So what? I’m too old to worry about the opinions of people too young to know better.

As an 80-something friend once told me, “That’s one of the few advantages of being an old lady.  You can say what you want.”  How cool is that?

Remember “He Who Must Not Be Named” — Voldemort, the evil dark lord in the Harry Potter novels? Witches and wizards feared him so fiercely they wouldn’t say his name aloud.  But Harry’s wise old guardian, Dumbledore, counseled otherwise.

“Call him Voldemort, Harry,” he said. “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

Listen to Dumbledore. Stop fearing the “O” word.  Don’t give it any more power than it deserves. Let’s admit that getting old is part of life.

Let’s take a cue from Ellen, 20 years later, by declaring, “Yep, I’m old!”  See if it doesn’t liberate you a little.