I’ve reached the age where I can expect to get the “are you still” question during routine medical visits (ladies, you know the one I mean). While there are valid reasons for that particular question, I have been noticing how insidiously the word “still” finds its way into all kinds of descriptions as people get older.

It’s commonplace to say, for instance, that she is 70 and still working; or he is 75 and still golfs regularly; or this couple are over 80 and still mentally sharp. Such language reflects a cultural expectation that people will drop out of almost every activity and go into a rapid decline soon after reaching retirement age. Indeed, the word “retire” literally means to withdraw, drop out, retreat, or be secluded or removed. Somehow we’ve built a culture that expects older folks to do little more than sit around like overripe fruit, waiting to rot.

Painting of grapes, some overripe, on a table with a wilting carnation.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

That storyline is long overdue for revision, given the fact that the average lifespan has increased greatly over the past century, while at the same time major advances in technology have made it possible to work and be active without need for physical strength. Bioengineering has made the repair of many degenerative conditions a routine matter, and people nowadays have access to disability services and assistive devices.

Our modern society has made reasonable progress toward clearing away many other outdated narratives, so why does that one stubbornly persist? I suspect a large part of it is that whenever we talk about older folks, we are in effect creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for our own lives. Unlike other kinds of attitudes toward groups of people, when we talk about present-day seniors we’re also setting up expectations for our future selves. Our views of old age today become our karma later.

So, we’d all do both ourselves and society a favor by being more mindful about our use of words and not describing older folks’ activities as something they are “still” doing.

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