How we keep eroding respect for the elderly
We talked about this in my translation class! I had my students work on Rosalía de Castro's novella "Ruins," in which one of the main characters is an unmarried older woman. In order to figure out whether "solterona" (for instance) should be translated as "single woman" or "old maid," the students had to think about whether the narrative was judgmental and hostile toward this character and her status, or simply descriptive of it—and whether they wanted to reflect those attitudes, or subvert them. We learned a lot in this exercise. I wish I'd had the phrase "euphemism treadmill" in my arsenal back then!!
Perhaps this doesn't count since it's fiction, but I've thought for years that I want to be Angela Lansbury's character in Murder She Wrote when I'm old. Not the detective work (I doubt I'd have the stomach for it!) but the independence, the kindness, the confidence, the willingness to trust others but also the ability to read others ... Anyway, that character embodies strong older femininity for me.
I personally aspire to become a crone.
One of my grandmothers lives nearby and I see her pretty regularly, but she's not what I would consider properly old, and all of my great-grandmothers (and my other grandmother) have died, so I'm a sort of trough in my contact with old women right now. Before my great-grandmothers died I would visit them in nursing homes, so I did see a lot of their co-residents. The nursing homes themselves were mostly depressing and I always thought the staff seemed weirdly condescending.
there's 할머니 (grandma) in Korean and 아줌마 (middle aged woman). people address old ladies as 할머니 even if they're not related.
some of my aunts are older but I haven't seen them in person in a year because of the pandemic. Audrey Hepburn is someone I deeply admire, because she aged (even though she was only 63 when she died), but you got the sense that she was so happy and fulfilled, when we're usually told the opposite about growing older. she still had quite a lot to give and receive.
“Euphemism treadmill” is a great phrase for a frustrating phenomenon. As long as the underlying attitude is negative simply changing the word is a bandaid approach. The new word will go the same way as its predecessors and people will continue to get bogged down in arguing over terminology which it seems to me is a distraction from the real work of loving people.
On the other hand the poet in me loves the challenge of trying to find a new and vigorous language that defies euphemisms and instead helps to show the person.
Reading other comments here reminds me of a couple of things said about my life partner. When Marge was about 70, one of my friends at a big gathering said "Marge is juicy." I thought that was a high comment and something to which to aspire as I grew older. It might be useful to think of all the worse adjectives ascribed to older women in our culture, and then their antonyms, and come up with the terms for older women from there. If in China (?) the word for menopause is "second spring" then older women are getting ripe and lush -- some tart, some sweet, all individual, all gradually ripening and getting more delicious -- and juicy.
“ What names do you know for older women? Are there any you want to grow up to embody?”
And for me?? Masters Athlete
"Yo, Wise Woman!" sounds pretty good to me. Wouldn't mind "Hey, you're the Matriarch. What do you advise us to do?" (Ha, apparently I missed the generation or culture where that's a realistic hope for me.) As an artist I've spent many years savoring the examples of older women artists. Louise Nevelson was am awesome model of a woman killing of the "Angel of the House" and apparently thriving. If I had to pick one older woman, it might be the British Columbian painter Emily Carr, who went beyond Nevelson to dedicate herself to her work -- enduring whatever it took to do so (freezing cold, extreme poverty, ridicule, social rejection) -- while also caring passionately for individual people and for the Indigenous tribes and their culture and well being. She tolerated no falseness or nonsense, and loved as tenderly as anyone might. Hard not to go on to add other women artists...and...my own mother, whose awesome self-discipline I'm appreciating more and more, some 25 years after her death.
One name for older women that I've been reassessing lately is Crone. Becoming a Mother led me to realize that the Maiden-Mother-Crone trio of archetypes actually does point to real, distinctively felt stages of life for women. Female hormones and neurology change between these stages of life, in a way that they don't as much for males. Neurologists say that matrescence is as big of a transition for the brain as adolescence, and I believe them. I don't yet know how the shift to menopause feels, but no doubt I will find out.
Anabel Vizcarra, an "embodiment mentor and womb shaman," muses about the symbolism of menopause. To what degree this idea is historically accurate to some culture or other, I don't know, but it's certainly poetic:
"When a woman’s blood flow would stop coming it was said she no longer needed it, as she had accumulated the wisdom of the moon enough to embody it and invite it to stay. These wise women understood the importance of death and renewal at such a cellular level they no longer needed to be reminded every month."
I've read some quotes from Barbara G. Walker's book The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power, although I haven't read the whole thing. Two that stood out to me are:
"The Crone’s title was related to the word crown and she represented the power of the ancient tribal matriarch who made the moral and legal decisions for her subjects and descendants. It was the medieval metamorphosis of the wise woman into the witch that changed the word Crone from a compliment to an insult and established the stereotype of malevolent old womanhood that continues to haunt elder women today."
''Our culture's official rejection of the Crone figure was related to rejection of women, particularly elder women. The gray-haired high priestesses, once respected tribal matriarchs of pre-Christian Europe, were transformed by the newly dominant patriarchy into minions of the devil. Through the Middle Ages, this trend gathered momentum, finally developing a frenzy that legally murdered millions of elder women from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries.''
Many pagan traditions honor older women with "croning" ceremonies. Here's one such example. This one is gender-neutral. Despite what I said about the uniqueness of female neurobiology, I can imagine that older men go through their own unique identity crises, so both genders could benefit from something like this:
I've looked at this page several times, and only now did I notice "eroding respect for the elderly." I'm not any more fond of the term "elderly" than I am of "seniors" or other euphemisms. Really, I'm just not fond of any labels, because they categorize -- whereas differences among human beings are always really gradations. "Older" at least leaves open the question "older than whom? Younger than whom?) "Biocognitive" researcher Mario Martinez suggests that our culture there's no advantage to telling anyone our age. Worth considering.
You've put your finger on one of the things that has really bothered me about the way people use language. I will remember this term "euphemism treadmill". I like to make a point of using a more original term even if it bothers people (for example, in England, the term "black" is not as offensive as I understand it is in the states) because I know that the "correct" terms will shift to satisfy some societal whim. Of course, this can hurt some people. Maybe this is a case of my turning naive theory into practice and mistaking the map for the territory, but it seems tragic to play into the dancing anxious game of catered language.
I've always liked the Spanish word viejita which is the diminutive of vieja, old woman. It sounds affectionate to me, but I'm not a native speaker so I could be mistaken about this. However, my parents used the word natively, and I never got the impression that it was negative or condescending. Same with abuelita, another diminutive which means, sweet, cute, or little grandmother. I associate viejita with those one or two little old ladies at church whose quavering voices stand out when the congregation is singing hymns in Spanish.