You may have noticed that fewer grandmothers are actually willing to be called anything remotely resembling grandma or granny—usually not even nanny. Shakespeare’s Juliet posed the question, “What’s in a name?” a long time ago, and her thoughts were “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Ask the baby boomer generation how they feel about what’s in a name when it comes to growing old, though, and you’ll get a totally different answer. There’s even an app for that. Yes, the Apple store has an app called the Grandparent Nicknames App. For those who may still be a little old school, you can also find books with newfangled names to choose from when facing becoming a grandparent. As more than 10,000 people every day turn age 65 and become “seniors,” cultural changes have made us begin questioning how we are growing old. After all, these baby boomers sang along with The Who talking about “My Generation” not getting older and sang along with The Beatles asking, “will you still need me when I’m 64.” Now, they are facing their own aging process and mortality.
The changing culture of aging leaves those of us who work with an aging population wondering how we should relate to this growing group of seniors. We’re even left struggling with the notion of how to describe this population. Should we refer to them as aging adults? Older adults? Seniors or senior citizens? Elderly? As more and more baby boomers avoid the undertones of what’s in a name, we’re understanding that, generationally, a lot of people just aren’t ready to be someone’s granny. In fact, we’re learning that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all self-defined category or generational image for those who are 65 and older.
In a recent white paper from Varsity Branding, they revealed results of research about reactions from different age groups towards terms describing age and stage of life. Varsity broke the 65-and-over participants into three groups based on their responses: the GI generation, the transitional generation, and the baby boomers. When asked about the term “senior,” the GI generation viewed the term as a title they were proud to have earned over their lifetimes. The transitional generation wasn’t thrilled with the term, but didn’t find it overwhelmingly negative either. With the baby boomers, though, “senior” is a term that carries with it a very negative stigma and a term they’re not comfortable with applying to themselves except, as Varsity points out, if they’re “in Wendy’s.” The term “retirement” also had vastly different meanings to the three generational groups. While the GI generation thought of retirement as the best time of their lives—something they’d worked toward and earned—the transitional generation begins to make a distinction between retiring from a job (which doesn’t bother them) and retiring from a lifestyle (which carries a different implication). For the baby boomers, “retirement” was seen as a “foreign term” in their lives and for their life plans.
While the “me” generation is finding their way through the aging process, how does their experience and expectation impact the discussion of aging options and health care options? Because we now have very distinct groups of folks in the 65-and-over age range, how they perceive their roles, their legacies, and their lifestyles will shape their expectations of not only the aging process, but how they interact with other generations as well. For instance, Adair Lara, a grandmother herself, talks about “the new G-Mother” in her article published at www.more.com. As Lara tells of a time when her daughter asked her to watch the grandchildren, Lara says of her own life, “I have a job. I’m a reporter, I have two books to write, a husband who wants to go to France, and I just bought an investment property in Portland, Oregon. I love my grandchildren, but being a grandmother got added to my to-do list. The truth is, I can’t be the kind of grandmother my own grandmother was — available and self-sacrificing . . . I wasn’t a stay-at-home mom, and I can’t be a stay-at-home-grandma either.”
Culturally, we’re not in the day and age of the Beverly Hillbillies’ gray-haired granny with her hair in a bun any longer. And it’s not just that images of aging have changed. There are other factors that have made those changing images possible. Think about it. How many people do you know who’ve had joint replacement surgeries so they can live active and pain-free lives? When you consider that the first joint replacement surgeries weren’t even performed until the 1960s, you can see what a difference those sorts of medical advancements have made in the aging process. Our life spans are longer, too. We’re living, on average, between 10 and 20 years longer now than what was expected even 50 or 60 years ago. The bottom line is that we’re often able to have a better quality of life for a longer period of time than what our own grandparents ever thought possible, and so expectations of health and aging are transforming as a result. As much as they might like to, though, the baby boomers don’t have any magical power to defy the ultimate aging process.
Next month we’ll take a look at how the baby boomers are actually aging and how that may contradict some of their desired self-images. We’ll also see how some traditional cultural expectations are changing as a result of the baby boomers’ resistance to being labeled as growing old.