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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: The weight of the word 'elderly'

Rika Kayama

A newspaper headline reading "Review the term 'elderly,'" recently caught my eye. With inquisitiveness I read the article, and found it was about calls that have arisen within the political world for a review of the term "elderly," or "koreisha" in Japanese, amid the transition to a long-lived society. It was reported that the government's outline on measures for an aging society compiled in January stated, "The general trend of seeing everyone aged 65 or older as elderly is becoming less realistic."

Admittedly, the number of healthy people in their 70s and 80s is increasing, and their various activities include continuing to work, serving as volunteers, taking citizen training courses and studying at universities. Quite a few of them are more active than those in their middle years, taking up parenting of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and going on trips overseas.

Personally, I don't feel the word "elderly" has a negative connotation. Previously at my workplace, I was told, "Today a group of elderly retirees who used to work here are coming for a tour." I imagined the arrival of dignified seniors and I straightened up and thought, "I have to act properly." Even if the people who are arriving have a friendly and youthful demeanor, when I hear the term "elderly," I have respect for them and get a little tense. That's because I associate the word "elderly" with the hardship that anyone experiences over the years and the wisdom thus acquired.

What if it were decided that the term "elderly" should no longer be used? If a person were instead described as being of "sunset age," for example, and I were told "today some 'sunset age' people are coming here," would I still have the same degree of respect and tension? I might think "Sunset? That sounds kind of fun. Let's take it easy, then." That approach might have some advantages, but I get the feeling that we would forget our feelings of respect for the aged.

Of course, just because someone is older, it doesn't automatically mean that they are a great person. Still, a 70-year-old person has gone through 70 years of hardship and experiences, and an 80-year-old person 80 years. With that in mind we surely have to have some degree of respect, saying, "That's amazing," as well as a sense of humility, telling them, "Let me learn something from that." I believe the word "koreisha," or "elderly," carries such weight.

Having said that, if the people involved were saying, "I dislike being called elderly. Make it something more cheerful," then it would be a different story. A title that expresses their lively active selves would be good.

Should we continue to use the term "elderly" or discontinue using it? What do you think?

(By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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