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Word of the day: ouden van dagen (elderly)


Words for the elderly are dying out in the Netherlands. 

The Dutch author and atheist Guus Kuijer, who has written magnificent books for young people and is currently rewriting the Bible for adults, twittered on 22 January 2014:
‘Toen ik 9 was, was ik ‘bijna 10’. Ik ben nu 71 ‘bijna 100’. Je moet je trots toch érgens vandaan halen?’ (When I was 9, I was almost 10. Now I am 71 ‘almost 100’. Somehow you must find something to pull your pride from, mustn’t you?)

ouden van dagenIt’s true that when I was twenty the idea of ever turning thirty seemed absurd. I was forever young. When thirty arrived, I thought the end of my life had come. Now that I am sixty, I sometimes feel like a greybeard (grijsaard). And yet, spiritually still twenty. Growing old is one of the mysteries of life.

My friend, the artist Charlotte whose designs of feathered shoes I discussed a year ago is slightly over twenty and clearly up and coming. Last week she suggested the word OUDEN VAN DAGEN as a word of the day. She wrote: ‘Hi Ruud, hoestie? Ik heb nog een woord voor je: ouden van dagen. Maf woord is dat eigenlijk. Maf is er ook zo een! Ik kan wel doorblijven gaan met woorden bedenken , groetjes.’ (Hi Ruud, how are you? I have another word for you: ouden van dagen (elderly). ‘Maf’ (crazy) word actually. ‘Maf’ is another one of those words. I could go on thinking up words. Greetings.)

And when I asked her to send me one of her paintings with a portrait of an elderly person, she sent me the attached picture. Funny, that Charlotte comes up with OUDEN VAN DAGEN, for it’s a word that you don’t hear very often any more.

Literally it means ‘old of days’. The name for an old people’s home used to be ‘tehuis voor ouden van dagen’ (home for the elderly). Together with its synonym ‘bejaardenhuis’ these words were common in the fifties and the sixties of the previous century.

My grandmother who died in 1992 at the age of 92 often called her miserable lot with a wry smile: ‘oud en der dagen zat’ (literally old and replete of days -> old and weary of life). But her view was old-fashioned. Since the sixties, the view of old age pensioners has changed and the name of a ‘bejaardenhuis’ or ‘rusthuis’ (retirement home has become ‘woonzorgcentrum’ (assisted living residence). All three ‘het-words’.

Apparently all OUDEN VAN DAGEN or ‘bejaarden’ have become extinct and have been succeeded by ‘senioren’ (seniors).

Recently a bestseller has come out called ‘Oud worden zonder het te zijn’ by geriatrist University of Leiden professor Rudi Westendorp, founder of the Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing, where they train pioneers to apply excellent and innovative care for the advancement of the quality of life for the elderly. In translation the title of this popular book is: ‘Growing old without being old’.

Professor Westendorp has a utopian vision of a society in which the elderly remain fit and healthy. ‘People tend to associate old age with decrepitude and senility’, he says, ‘but we have no reason to assume that weakness is inevitable in the old.’
Westendorp says that the oldest human ever became 122 and that the first one to become 135 has already been born.
So let’s forget the words OUDEN VAN DAGEN and focus on a healthy career in the second half of our lives. And trust that we’ll all live happily ever after.