Aging Gracefully – Compliment or Ageist Comment?

by Jeff Weiss

The more time that I spend thinking about and living in the world of older adults, the more I realize how important words and language are in how we ourselves and how society as a whole view aging.  In that context, it is even more curious to me why certain words associated with other prejudices are shunned with calls for them to be stricken from dictionaries moving forward, while the same does not happen when it comes to ageist language.

Marketers often ask us what they should call older adults in their marketing efforts. In most cases we counsel them to avoid labels. Instead, they should market to them based on their needs and desires and keep age out of it, unless absolutely necessary. I wrote about this in a previous blog where I advise marketers to stay away from terms like Boomers and Seniors.  While some people are okay with these labels, it is a turn-off for many.

One of the terms I personally struggle with is “aging gracefully.” It is more often used by individuals when referring to women as they get older and is usually (at least I believe it is) given/intended as a compliment. Similar to the expression “you look great for your age”, “aging gracefully” implies that the individual has somehow aged “more slowly” or “better” than societal norms (that are often based on myths and stereotypes). In effect, it’s a way of telling an older adult that they don’t look as old as they really are.

We recently conducted a daily poll with our Revolution55 community to get their thoughts on the somewhat loaded term “aging gracefully.”  We asked how they felt about the idea of aging gracefully or naturally vs. hiding or disguising the appearance of aging.  Results of the poll were quite revealing as just over half of Revolutionaries think we should age gracefully while over a third are okay with disguising our looks:

How do you feel about aging gracefully/naturally vs. fighting/disguising the appearance of aging?

Clearly ads for Botox injections and other anti-aging products and procedures are not falling on deaf ears. The remaining 7% who chose “something else” generally stated that it is a personal choice perhaps with a middle ground that includes natural solutions over cosmetic surgeries.

When I consider the term “aging gracefully,” I look at it from three different perspectives — one related to personal looks, one to cognitive health and the other to attitude.  Starting with physical appearance, I believe that older adults should try to look the best they can whatever age they happen to be (with respect to any physical/other limitations that might pose a barrier in doing so). To me, at least, that means taking care of your body through diet and physical fitness including strength training, cardio activities, flexibility, balance and agility exercises and programs.  My goals are to keep my weight down, my muscle mass up and my body toned.

My physical appearance also includes how I dress, how I manage my facial hair, how I style my (greying) hair and how I smell.  My goal is not to look 20 years younger but to look the best that I can as a 58 year-old male.

Next comes my cognitive health as I’d rather not have to hear the term “senior moment” thrown my way. Having strong mental health for me includes maintaining relationships and building new ones with friends and people I generally want to connect with. It involves keeping my mind active in work and other mentally stimulating activities, and giving myself permission to unwind and recharge. Engaging in Wordle and other puzzles doesn’t hurt either.

Which brings me to my attitude as it relates to aging gracefully. The Latin term for grace is “gratus” which means “pleasing” and I am not living my life to please others (with the exception of my family).  I don’t want to have to watch my words or actions for fear of upsetting others. I want to live life to the fullest for as long as I can and if that means that it may not be “graceful”, so be it!

If you are struggling with what language to use when engaging older adults in your marketing efforts, feel free to reach out to me directly and we can have a graceful (or not!) discussion.

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