About a decade ago, not long after she turned 80 and I turned 60, Helen Gurvich and I made a lunch date, something we enjoyed doing whenever we could get our calendars lined up (hers was often as busy as mine). When she walked into the room that day she looked especially beautiful, just glowing with energy. My immediate reaction was, “Gee, you look great!”
My exclamation was followed by what seemed like a very long silence as she looked directly at me. “You know,” she eventually said, in that slyly smart-ass voice only she had.
“There are three ages in life – youth, middle age, and, ‘Gee, you look great!’”
Increasingly, I find myself on the receiving end of that phrase, and, understanding the intent, I take it as a compliment whenever it comes. But with a mental nod to Helen1, who died in 2013, I try not to use it myself.
Evidence of the struggle to find ways to name the gee-you-look-great age is all around us. Around the country, some senior centers are “rebranding” themselves by dropping the word “senior” and taking names like “the 50+ Center,” “The Heritage Center,” and “The Center for Balanced Living.” As long ago as 2003, the Hartford Courant suggested that names like “Center for Healthy Aging” or “The Wisdom Center” might be more appealing to “aging baby boomers.” And the national trade group for senior housing, once known as the Assisted Living Federation of America, is changing its name to “Argentum,” Latin for “silver.”
People of ‘a certain age’
Here’s a far-from-complete list of descriptors from a variety of sources. Let me know if you’ve got any good ones of your own.
- Old timer, oldster, crone, hag, codger, coffin dodgers
- Golden-agers, silver surfers, wrinklies
- Oldie but goodie
- Elder, mentor, sage, wisdom-keeper
- Grumpies, old fogies
- The living dead
- Time-worn, decrepit, out-of-date, fusty, wizened, senile
- Well-preserved, seasoned, weathered, antique, tried and true
- Wise, wise hag, venerable, vintage, classical, enduring, traditional
- Time-honored, well-established, mature, immemorial
- Ancient, old-fashioned, over the hill, timeless, archaic, venerable
- Gray-haired, practiced, skilled, veteran, centenarian, long-lived, gettin’ on
- “You may refer to me as well-seasoned or experienced.”
- “My mum ‘n dad, both 73, call themselves ‘recycled teenagers’.”
- “Young at heart and still kicking a**”
- “One-foot in the grave!”
- “In London they’re ‘Twirlies.’ This is because when they try to get on a bus before their free pass allows they are told, ‘It’s too early.’ (twirlie)”
“Baba Yaga – the Arch-Crone, the Goddess of Wisdom and Death, the Bone Mother. Wild and untamable, she is a nature spirit bringing wisdom and death of ego, and through death, rebirth.”2
Then, there’s the simple word, “old,” claimed by Carol Miller3 in an article, “Looking Old Age in the Eye,” published by Real Change, Seattle’s weekly street paper. A woman of “80-some years,” Miller wrote: “In America, I have found being old and admitting it a challenge.” In a longer excerpt she says:
This is the face I grew into, the face that I earned, a face of character and feeling, the face of time — my time. Of course, it is not the face I had at 18. I didn’t much care for my face then. We didn’t seem well acquainted. No matter how I felt, I looked fine. I remember suffering from a splitting headache and finding no change in the bathroom mirror. I realized no one would believe my complaint and decided I would have to go to work. Sometimes I would cry in frustration and my tears, when dry, would leave no trace. I had the classic poker face: Emotionless, unresponsive and unrevealing. I suspect it cloaked an equally under-developed heart.
Now I have the face of felt experience. My face and feelings mesh; I look the way I feel. I am pleased with my looks and wish others were as well. I would like to be accepted wearing this face without having others express remorse or pity or being metaphorically patted on the head. I particularly want to be acknowledged as a person of value and, at the same time, as old.4
I want to earn a face that’s clearly as old as I am with a spirit that can give a comeback as lively as Helen’s to “Gee, you look great!”
2 Ivan Bilibin, “Baba Yaga,” OldRussia.net
3 “For 30 years, Carol Miller, an anthropologist, studied a Romany (Gypsy) tribe, initially in Seattle and subsequently in California. She wrote a memoir of her experiences, Lola’s Luck: My Life among the California Gypsies. Real Change byline, 12/23/14
4 Carol Miller, “Looking Old Age in the Eye,” Real Change, 12/23/14
Helen Gurvich and Anne Focke, by Cathryn Vandenbrink
Two stills from “Round Table with Helen Gurvich,” a video by 911 Media Arts Center, taken at the third annual Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award, 10/1/09.