Tough Topics: Aging and Death

Talking about touchy* topics requires tact.  Yes, Americans do have a reputation for speaking their mind.*  But even in the United States: age, race, weight, income, sexual preferences, other’s disabilities, death, seniority, and women’s work are topics which require tact and sensitivity.  There are cultural rules called mores (pronounced MORE’ayz) guiding how sensitive topics should be discussed.

For decades Western culture  depicted* the successful man as a an educated, well-groomed, gainfully* employed, homeowner with a wife, a dog and 2.5 children

© Vcarmstrong | Dreamstime.com - Family Waving Hello
© Vcarmstrong | Dreamstime.com – Family

(Two or three children is considered the ideal family size equaling 2.5 [two point five] kids).  The successful woman was married to the successful man. And successful children had two successful parents, a brother or sister or two, a bike, and a dog!

According to an article in Business Insider, Modern Americans have redefined success as: happiness, the achievement of personal goals, an enjoyable job, and good relationships.  At an intellectual level we understand that the house, the car, the dog, the trim body, perfect hair, college degree, happy marriage and 2.5 kids don’t make us successful. But at an emotional level our culture creates doubt.  “The family in that cool car looks so happy!

Cultural rules discourage conversations that threaten cultural ideals.  So in this series of articles called Tough Topics, I will explain the deep seated* (= entrenched or deeply rooted) ideals promoted by Western culture and why some topics are awkward or taboo.*

Cultural message: Youth is synonymous with beauty

Recently, a newspaper called The Huffington Post published an article about America’s obsession with staying “Forever Young.”  In fact, there have been lots of songs written about this very thing* (e.g. Forever Young by Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, also : One Direction, and Beyonce’ and JayZ, both sang  Alphaville’s Forever Young, and even Sam O’Neal wrote a song titled Forever Young ).

Aging is not embraced as desirable or elegant.  Plastic surgery, also called cosmetic surgery remains a popular method for at least appearing to be forever young.  Adults in Western cultures are uncomfortable talking about age.   It reminds us that we are growing old and that we are failing to meet beauty standards.  The pressure to be young and beautiful (they go hand in hand*) is especially* hard on women.

Recognizing that we are growing old also reminds us that we are getting closer to death. And death is another tough topic to talk about.

Cultural message: Death should be prevented

Just as surgery and cosmetics help Westerners maintain the illusion that we are younger than we are, Westerners expect medicine to keep us alive, healthy,

© Maszas | Dreamstime.com – Doctor

and relatively pain-free.  We also promote toughness, and admire bad a***s.*  We fight diseases, we stand against evil, and stare death in the face.*

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Talking about death and dying is akin* to giving up.  Giving up is considered weak and unacceptable. Perseverance and staying strong (enduring) are values promoted in the Christian church as well.  In fact, Romans 5:3-4 says,

 “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”Revised Standard Version (RSV)

What NOT to do

The following synonyms can be used to describe OLD things, but should NEVER be used to describe a person (except as a joke).  These terms are very offensive.

ancient antique
archaic broken down
dated decrepit
dinosaur feeble*
fogie geezer
obsolete older than dirt
outdated past it’s expiration date
prehistoric senile*

*Senile (often used to describe dementia) and feeble (weak) are words used by physicians and medical professionals.

The next group of words are sometimes used by people to describe themselves, but should be used CAREFULLY when describing others.  These words can be offensive at times.

Many of these words are used in the Old People Jokes on the site, You Can Be Funny Too.

advanced in years aged
elderly golden-ager
grandma/grannie grandpa/gramps
gray-haired little old (lady/man)
no spring chicken not as young as one once was
old guy old people
over the hill past one’s (its) prime
silver-haired up in years
vintage white-haired
worn out

Terms to use

This last group  has the My Virtual English Seal of approval 
baby boomer elder
experienced mature
older older adult
retiree seasoned
senior senior citizen

These words are generally unoffensive to most people.  If you use a term which offends someone, apologize quickly and try to follow it with a positive statement such as, “My intention was to call attention to your expertise.”

Talking about Death

Successful conversations about aging and death, or about any touchy* topic requires careful observation and respect for the person you are talking to.  These are the same skills  required in all successful cross-cultural communication.

When talking about death, let the person who is struggling cue you as to what is okay or not.  Let the person know that you are willing to listen without judging (some people are angry with God) and you will not shut them down.  Mainly, just be there.  Love them. (Also, hospice is a good resource for information and advice on handling death and dying).

Additionally, if you suspect that someone is thinking about suicide it is essential that you talk to them about it.  People that are contemplating* suicide are hurting and feel hopeless and alone.  Mental health experts have learned that asking someone if they are thinking about killing themselves may actually prevent them from committing suicide.

   My Take On It

As I suggested with the Butterfly Story in an earlier post when we are in our “comfort zone”* there is no motivation to change.  And although we don’t enjoy being uncomfortable, the struggle is what changes us and makes us stronger and wiser.

If you have a story or tips to share about talking about age, aging, death, dying or any other tough topic, please share it in the comment section below, or submit it to Be My Guest.  Thanks.

God be with you.  Michele

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