I was reading an article today that used the phrase “outside the language of pathology”. It was a bold statement and one that made me think about just how frequently I fall prey to pathologizing so many aspects of my life, including getting older. Of course, it is helpful to define “pathologizing”, because even it has become a word tossed around to describe too many different things.

At its root, “pathos” (from the Greek) means suffering. The balance of the word, be it “…ology”, or “…ical”, or “…gizing”, are all variations of how and what is done about the suffering. For example, “pathology” is the study of disease (suffering). If someone is considered to be a “pathological liar”, that person is suffering from an inability to discern truth or speak truth. “Pathologizing” makes suffering into a super verb – actions taken to cause suffering or to label something as suffering.

Language is Discriminatory, Imprecise, and Always Changing

Language is a living, breathing, ever-changing attempt at communicating. The words we use to name something or someone are often vague and inaccurate. They are frequently misunderstood. They change with time, culture, and adaptation to new discoveries, inventions, and understandings of how things work. For example, “memory” has acquired multiple meanings over time and now includes prose and poetry classics, a disease classification, as well as computer part that stores bytes (there’s a word!) mega-bytes and giga-bytes of information.

Add to this the sometimes-comical misunderstandings that come from different meanings given to the same word but used differently in different cultures. For example, “chips” in the U.S. is a very different thing than “chips” in the U.K! It is understandable when translation ends up in confusion or confrontation, in spite of Google Speak!

When Language is Used to Discriminate

Then there is the intentional, hurtful and harmful use of language that results in people’s feelings being hurt, lives being physically and emotionally impacted, and entire groups of people being pushed aside, demeaned, or worse.

We are currently in an era of discrimination that has proved to be a mighty stretch for language. Folks discriminated against because of their experience of gender dysphoria are now forcing a change in language to broaden gender descriptions to include “she/her-he/him” and “us/they”. Folks who face challenges due to mobility and functioning limitations are forcing a language change to address “able-ism”, defined as the systemic discrimination and oppression of disabled people.

Aging adults are taking a long look at words that subtly and not so subtly suggest that we are incapable of making decisions, living independently, and maintaining dignity and control of our lives. Words like “elderly”, “senior”, and “retired person” that bring to mind images of walkers and wheelchairs, loneliness and grief, and checker-playing, slow drivers. These are examples of ageist languaging.

“Super-Agers” and “Frail Elderly”: Two Ends of a Broad Continuum

There is a trend in media to cull the spectacular and share that far and wide. When it comes to aging adults, it is all too common to see articles about super-agers living past 100, exceptional athletes who run marathons at 90+, climb tall mountains, and professionals who continue to ply their trade well beyond traditional retirement. But the majority of us don’t fall into those categories.

The other end of the spectrum is replete with articles about older adults who are physically frail, economically unstable, unable to care for themselves, and who live lives of loneliness and desperation. Again, the majority of us don’t fall into those categories.

What is true, however, is that while the majority of us don’t see ourselves on either ends of this spectrum, we have not questioned or pushed back against these stereotypes. As a matter of fact, we collude with the labeling and call ourselves “seniors”, “elderly”, and “old farts”.

Re-Branding Is Essential for Healthy Aging

We have to change how we label ourselves if we want to be recognized and taken seriously. Case and point:  the current surge of articles on how old Congress is. The mean age of elected officials is 65. These elected representatives are also seniors, elderly and old farts who are running the nation and making decisions that will impact the lives of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Maybe some shouldn’t be making those decisions. Most, however, are doing a fine job.

Just because someone has attained a certain number of years chronologically does not mean that he/she/they are functioning on all cylinders. It is clear that Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Mitch McConnell are not functioning at capacity. Is their chronological age a factor in that? Possibly, but it is not the sole factor. We need to change the languaging from counting birthdays to assessing functional capacity.

What Is Healthy Functioning at This Stage of the Game?

This isn’t rocket science!  The basics of healthy functioning  include physical health (stamina, strength, weight management, chronic disease management, diet and sleep), staying engaged (socializing with people of all ages, contributing your ideas and energies to something besides yourself), keeping your mind challenged (learning new things, changing the way you have always done things), and creating purpose and meaning.

What has happened, though, is that as a cohort, those of us who are “retired” or “seniors”, or identify as “elderly” have been lumped into a group that is labeled as needing support and services and not being able to live by ourselves. This is ageism.

There are different flavors of ageism that include being technologically incompetent, physically weak, cognitively confused or “demented”, and slow: all of which are subtle and not-so-subtle discriminatory markers that result in our not being valued or seen as having value in a society that would benefit from our wisdom and experience.

Outside the Language of Ageism

While I can easily point fingers at ageism in the public forum, I really want to invite you to take a look at your own ageism. How many of us make remarks (jokes?) about our aches and pains?  How many of us share cartoons that make fun of what it is to be old?  How many of us continue to deny that our hair is changing color, or take steps to hide our wrinkles?  How many of us lie about our age? The sad truth is that we live in a culture that does not value aging and we end up not valuing ourselves.

There are undeniable gaps in meeting the needs of aging adults: housing, transportation, equity, and healthcare. While these gaps are daunting in scope (it is worldwide!), we need to also remember that many (if not most) of us continue to find ways to care for ourselves, one another, and our planet. There are advocacy groups ranging from AARP to Elder Action Network, to Changing the Narrative, to name just three, that represent the energetic commitment of aging adults to create elder-friendly communities. Take time to check these groups out or explore your local advocacy groups to find out where you can connect and change how we talk about aging.

4 responses to “Outside the Language of Pathology”

  1.  Avatar

    Thank you Mary! A fascinating Sunday morning essay on the power of words for us “elders.” I “came into” this world carrying (from who-knows-where) a particularly annoying quality: I have always sincerely liked myself! My Puritan (New England) family — steeped in that culture’s (fake-) “Christian” rubric of self-hatred, basic human badness and the need to be “forgiven” each week — has therefore (jealously?) for decades expressed their loathing of me (“How DARE you!”).

    My so-“annoyingly” being in touch with genuinely liking myself (the exact OPPOSITE of “egotism,” which is always an attempted denial of unseen self-HATRED), accidentally has ALSO stood me in good stead for “the aging experience.” For, I “STILL” “like myself” — fascinatingly aging body and all!

    And then, in my 60s, I “was brought” (by a very kind Universe) another person also free from the contagion of self-abasement, enabling us to like each other’s true selves “ridiculously” much — thus quite wonderfully embracing (and sharing) both of our (physical) aging (along with life’s many joys).

    Each having done “his work” to further separate our true selves from batty family and societal expectations, we both ARE much more emotionally and cognitively sharp than when WE were younger. As such, we’re ironically amused by the ageism of shut-down “younger” people — still trapped in Puritan self-loathing and helpless despair. For, such people ARE “ageist” exactly BECAUSE unconsciously — they view their own aging as “just another life disappointment.” Wow! Poor things! Or, to quote “Auntie Mame” — “LIFE is a banquet, but most poor b______s are starving to death.” Which reflects an ultimate Zen irony: People can’t make The Choice (to become and to love their true selves), until they see that there IS one!

  2. Susan Drake Avatar
    Susan Drake


  3. Geri Avatar

    As usual, lots to think about- ageism (like so many “isms”) begins at home.

  4. Marion Taylor Taylor McCandless Avatar
    Marion Taylor Taylor McCandless

    Your wisdom is shining again… thank you!

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