“Age is something that doesn’t matter — unless you’re a cheese.” — Billie Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch of the North in “The Wizard of Oz” at the age of 54.

This week I’m sure of one thing: that this week’s column is going to be one for the ages. That’s because I’ll be looking at words that people of all ages should keep in mind — and some to avoid — when it comes to the matters of aging and ageism.

It was back in 1967 when the federal government passed the Age Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination against people 40 and older based on their age.

Two years later, Dr. Robert Butler coined the term “ageism.” Based on the concepts of sexism and racism, ageism is defined as “The stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination toward people on the basis of their age.”

According to Butler, ageism is composed of three interconnected elements: “attitudes” that are prejudicial toward older people and old age, “practices” that discriminate against those people, and “policies” that perpetuate the stereotypes.

We’ve all heard the pejoratives: “geezer” and “old fart,” or “lol” (little old lady). Appropriately, the Associated Press is doing its part, recommending in its Style Manual that reporters no longer use terms like “the elderly” or “senior citizens.” “Elderly” evokes images of frailty, while “geriatric” is accurate but seen as being too clinical, so avoid those.

Instead? If a person is no longer working, the words “retirees” and “pensioners” are considered OK. Being called a “senior” is fine too (but not “senior citizen,” as mentioned above), while “elder” is seen as a sign of respect.

Language alone can’t eradicate ageism, but the best start would probably be to refer to older people as just that: “older people.” The terms “older adults” or just “older” (but never “old” by itself) also fill the bill, since “older” is merely a descriptor into which people can move.

On the other hand, there are lots of words having to do with aging that we should embrace. One of those words is “activity.” “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing,” warned writer George Bernard Shaw.

As if to prove my point, the other day I was out biking and met an old friend in Greene who said he was planning to ride about 30 miles. He’s 81, and the only thing that stopped him was a flat tire.

Seems to me that he could be well on his way to becoming a “supercentenarian,” or someone who lives well past 100 — often to 110. “The trick,” said baseball manager Casey Stengel, “is growing up without growing old.”

“Learning” is another word to embrace. According to the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), being life-long learners has enabled its many volunteers to remain relevant and achieve personal satisfaction and growth. (People who work beyond retirement age are sometimes called “olderpreneurs.”)

And then there’s the word “respect.” You know, the mutual kind. As you’ve probably heard, Maine’s median age (half older, half younger) is 45, making our state the oldest in the nation. By working together, our older citizens can impart their relevant knowledge and wisdom gleaned from years of experience to the younger ones who can, in turn, assist their mentors to “age young” by helping them feel and act younger for longer.

That’s it for this time. If I made any mistakes I can blame them on my age; as the witty writer Oscar Wilde once said, “I am not young enough to know everything.”

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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