When my Dad died …

by Catherine Rickwood

I was 28. He was 61. At the time I thought he’d had a good innings because he was, after all, ‘old’. That was nearly 25 years ago. Now I know I was wrong. What do I think now?

He wasn’t old. He was in the prime of his life. Given that men and women, on average, live until their early 80’s, my father potentially had another twenty years or more of life! That’s a long time.

How I perceive older people today is radically different to when my father died and I rarely use the term ‘old’.  I generally consider older people as simply that: older.  Not old. I’m much more aware that one day I will be that older person. My own attitude towards older people today will potentially influence how I’m treated.

Old vs older: Why does language matter?

Research has shown that there is a relationship between age stereotypes and health – in particular, cognitive ability and depression. My own research indicates that our attitude influences our propensity to actively save for retirement.  The relationship between attitudes and behaviour is well-established in the academic literature.

In discussions I’m presently having with people between 50-74 years of age, the word ‘old’ is largely associated with physical and cognitive decline.  So long as a person is physically and cognitively capable, no one considers themselves old.

Whilst those I’ve spoken with acknowledge that they may be perceived as old, they believe old is for someone else – someone older than themselves. Invariably, the people I’ve spoken with consider their current life stage as an extension of their life.  Other than a few more aches and pains, the overwhelming consensus is that they feel ‘normal’ not ‘old’.

What is ‘old’ to me?

I associate the word ‘old’ with an inability and unwillingness to happily engage with the world within the bounds of my physical and cognitive capacity.

I believe attitude matters. A lot. Think old and I’ll become old.

Which means? Being cranky. Closed to new ideas. Self-absorbed. Unable to give time, effort, or energy to others for whatever reason, whether that be lack of awareness or physical or cognitive capacity. And yes, physical capability would also impact my perceptions of myself and whether or not I believe I’m ‘old’.

Even if I had these attitudes and behaviours, would I define myself as ‘old’ when I’m there? Possibly not. And perhaps that doesn’t matter.

Maybe old vs older is more about our own beliefs and attitudes. Right now. No matter what our age. Towards those older than ourselves and our own perceptions of how we will be when we’re older.

As Bruce Lee, martial artist, actor, philosopher and filmmaker once said:

“As you think, so shall you become.”

What do you think? How do you define ‘old’? What is your attitude towards older people?


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About the Author

Catherine Rickwood

An experienced researcher and business executive, Catherine's work is informed by academic knowledge and evidence to deliver practical actions with measurable outcomes. These combined skills create a powerful and useful ability to delve deep on issues, ask incisive questions, think laterally, and bring knowledge and insights to individuals, a team, and an organisation keen to engage with, and include the over 50's as a valuable part of their business strategy.

Catherine Rickwood is solutions-focussed, working with innovative organisations keen to improve customer and employee insights and empathy to increase their success in new markets, build loyalty, and increase innovation. She does this using a co-design process that engages employees and key stakeholders to create collaborative solutions. Contact Catherine to discover how her services can support your organisation to harness the changing demographic reality.

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