Weakness, illness, decline? Or the opposite – health, activity, self-fulfilment? What is old age, which is no longer really called old age, but the third age. How is this reflected in language, in metaphors? These are the very topical issues we heard about in the lecture “The world doesn’t belong solely to those in their 20s- metaphors of life in old age” at the Corvinus Researchers’ Night at the end of September.
“We actually age from our birth. Today, one in five people in Hungary is over 65 years old, and it makes a difference how we think about them, what stereotypes are held about older people, and how they see themselves” – said Dr. Réka Benczes, Head of the Department of Communication and Media Studies and Programme Director of the PhD programme in Communication Studies at Corvinus University. She said that ageing is associated with a lot of negative stereotypes: decline, illness, loneliness, and many people believe that older people are incompetent, weak and unable to look after themselves. This is already reflected in the words we use to refer to old age: even if they were originally neutral, they become pejorative over time. For example, the word geriatric, which originally had the meaning “relating to old people”, has come to mean “old, stodgy, senile” in contemporary usage.
In a strange contradiction, the world is beginning to see a successful ageing phenomenon: the average age is increasing everywhere, we are living longer, and an old age revolution is taking place before our eyes,” she said. There is a growing number of older people who are physically and mentally fit, free from disabilities, leading active, balanced and productive lives. The traditional division has been between childhood, adulthood and old age, but now, between adulthood and old age, there is a so-called third age, when you can travel, learn, and make plans that were not viable before. Very typical in the Anglo-Saxon countries is the University of Third Age. This process was started by the baby boom generation, and they have revolutionised ageing. Alexander Kalache, who previously headed the WHO’s Ageing Programme, also spoke about redefining ageing.
The name of a nursing home can suggest activity and dependency as well
Does this translate into language use? Yes, Professor Benczes says, in Australian English, for example, the term “elderly” is typically associated with negative stereotypes, while the word senior means a successful older person who is active and defies preconceptions. In Hungary, the word “senior” is already in use, for example at the Semmelweis Medical University there is a Senior Academy, and since 2019 the university – similarly to the network of the University of the Third Age – has been offering free lectures specifically for this age group. But there’s also senior happy dance, senior yoga and senior Wednesday, the latter one means cultural and sporting opportunities for older people. Several museums organise active programmes specifically for seniors to accompany their exhibitions.
Alexandra Nagy-Béni Nagy, assistant lecturer at the Department of Communication and Media Studies, spoke about the use of the Hungarian language in relation to old age. She examined the names and logos of elderly care private institutions from this perspective. She said that 79% of nursing homes in Hungary use the word “old people’s home” in their names, and the word “old” is associated with negative images – death, illness. At the same time, names such as Rege Residence, Golden Age Home – names that suggests luxury and comfort – and Ambrosia Haus Retirement Wellness Apartment House have appeared, especially in privately run homes. The latter evokes pleasant thoughts, as does Sunbeam, Sunshine – a metaphor that conveys activity. Autumn Season Retirement Home name has a negative connotation, as does Sunset. Anything that refers to the penultimate stage of the year or of a day (autumn, twilight) does not evoke very happy associations, but Villa Rosa, Fairy Garden Home name, for example, have a positive connotation. If there is a foreign word is in the name of the institution, it also implies luxury and elegance.
Sometimes, however, although the name of the home has a nice ring to it, the logo evokes negative associations, according to Alexandra Nagy-Béni. A decrepit elderly couple, barely able to walk, or, for example, an infantilized puppet in the logo – even if the name of the home is good – does not, on the whole, evoke very pleasant thoughts. Several of the logos include images of a helping hand, which tends to emphasise dependency, abandonment and the fact that the elderly person needs help.
Is life a war or a game?
Lilla Petronella Szabó, Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication and Media Studies, spoke about how different age groups and the elderly themselves view life. Of course, this also depends on the cultural context – people use different words in different languages. Generational differences in life metaphors are also well reflected in Hungary. When respondents of different ages had to complete the sentence “Life is like…”, older respondents generally continued with “it’s like a war/fight”, while younger respondents compared life to an adventure or a journey. In February 2021, Benczes and her colleagues conducted a representative survey involving 1019 persons to find out whether the Covid epidemic had changed the Hungarian population’s way of thinking about life. It turns out that not really: the older generation still compared life to fighting, war, a rollercoaster, the 18-24 age group saw an increased role for play, while the 25-39 age group associated it less with the term ‘travel’ (understandably, because of the confinement). In conclusion, Lilla Petronella Szabó said that the ageing revolution has also appeared in Hungary, following the Anglo-Saxon model, but the change in Hungary is only partial so far.