Let me first say I love what’s going on with Grandma Betty, the Indiana octogenarian turned Instagram star.
When Betty was diagnosed with terminal cancer, her great-grandson Zach opened an account (@grandmabetty33) to chronicle her journey. More than 309,000 followers later, what started as a project for friends and family has turned into a worldwide sensation.
I just love that the bond between a great-grandmother and her teenage great-grandson, more than 60 years her junior, has inspired an outpouring of support. Zach was moved to act, to do something to add life to her final days. His project is a gift and an inspiration, and as a granddaughter who has been there, I applaud him.
As I scroll through Betty’s feed, though, I’m struck by the number of “cute” comments.
“She is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Sure, cute has become a catch-all descriptor these days. Boyfriends are cute. Cats are cute. Outfits are cute. But describing older people as cute—or adorable or precious—is not the language we’re looking for, in my opinion. It suggests we mean little or childlike in some way, even if we don’t, and it perpetuates negative stereotypes.
For centuries, old age was portrayed as a stage when life diminishes. A popular image during the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan Era, for example, depicted an individual’s lifetime as a circle from womb to tomb. The implication was that older adulthood was a return to infancy, a time when people regress to babble and dependency. (Consider Shakespeare’s King Lear, once the honored patriarch, crawling on his hands and knees.)
Today, we think differently of growing old, or at least I’m hopeful that we do. As people live longer than ever before, we see the possibility and the potential in old age. We respect the contributions—past, present and future—of our oldest generations. Their unique perspectives complement and challenge our own, and we understand we’re better for it. Communities across the country and around the world are finding ways to become more age friendly and age inclusive for this reason.
My guess is that Grandma Betty’s fans are on board. I bet they do value older people, or they wouldn’t have found their way to her account and been compelled to comment. It’s just that, somewhere along the way, there’s been a breakdown in language. Betty’s dance to Pharrell’s hit “Happy” is not “cute.” It’s amazing. Like Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to ban bossy, I say let’s cut “cute” from our vocabulary when we compliment older adults. Our Bettys and Arthurs and Bernies deserve so much more than that.
Don’t get me wrong—plenty of Betty followers are getting it right. Here are some of my favorites:
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