The Age-Old Question of What to Call Old Age

Wonderful blog post in The New York Times’ New Old Age Blog today (which I have noted in its entirety here). Thanks, New Old Age, for once again re-framing the “age-old” question that truly vexes all of us as we navigate this new landscape together. The New Old Age - Caring and Coping

April 19, 2012, 12:38 PM

‘Elderly’ No More

By Judith Graham

“Have you thought about changing the name of that blog you’re writing for?” Ann Fishman asked. “The boomers aren’t going to like it. They don’t ever want to get old.”

I’d called Ms. Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, a market research firm in New York, with a simple question. What language should we use in talking about people age 65 and older? Should we call them “seniors”? “The elderly”? “Older adults”? Something else?

“For heavens’ sake, don’t call them anything,” said Ms. Fishman. “Let’s talk about their interests and values.” Marketers, she noted, make it point to address potential customers’ “stage of life” and “lifestyle,” but never talk about their age.

But what’s the alternative for the rest of us, and for doctors who treat patients who fit this description, and for academics who study this demographic? What terms should we use to discuss this age group without giving offense?

I decided to conduct a small, random, unscientific survey by calling a few mostly past-middle-age experts and asking what they thought. Here are their responses.

Harry Moody, 67, director of academic affairs for AARP:

What’s going on is we have a problem with the subject itself. Everyone wants to live longer, but no one wants to be old.

Personally, I tend to use the term “older people” because it’s the least problematic. Everyone is older than someone else.

Much of the time, it’s completely unnecessary to use age as an identifier at all. People don’t like it. That’s why you see organizations changing their names. Elderhostel got rid of “elder” and became Road Scholar. AARP shortened its name, which now doesn’t mention age or retirement.

Jane Glen Haas, 74, nationally syndicated newspaper columnist:

Don’t call anyone “elderly.” I associate that with people with physical disabilities who need constant care.

“Senior citizens” is a term coined in the late 1930s for people who needed a place to go, senior centers, to have a good lunch. To me, it implies somewhat impoverished older people, not the way people want to think of themselves.

“Aging” — to me that sounds like I’m declining.

I guess “older people” is best. I suppose if you had to call me something, I’d prefer that it be “writer” or “an older writer.”

Dr. John Rowe, 67, chairman of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society and a professor of health policy at Columbia University:

People who study this talk about the “young-old,” roughly age 65 to 75, and the “old-old,” a group that tends to have more physical needs and functional impairments. The problem with terms like “the elderly” or “seniors” is that they lump these two groups together, and none of the young-old want to be identified with the old-old.

My view is that the elderly is a demographic group, like youth or middle age. I use it when I’m talking about populations. When I’m talking about individuals, then I say “older person.”

Personally, I prefer the term “senior,” but the fact is no one calls me that because no one thinks I’m that old.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, 70, author of “Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America” and a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University:

How we discuss age depends on the context and the underlying ideology. Society mostly adheres to a decline ideology that equates getting older with getting worse, usually from a health, and often from a financial, standpoint. Countering this is positive aging ideology that insists that many things get better with age. You’ve got a tug of war between these two views and over the direction of change that aging represents.

I prefer descriptions that imply movement to those that are static. Phrases like “aging past youth” or “aging into the middle years” or “aging toward old age” — I’d like to see those mainstreamed.

Thomas Cole, director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston:

We’ve tried “elder,” but people don’t like that because it reminds them of patriarchy and the church. We replaced “old age” with “aging,” which carried more of a sense of dynamism, but now that doesn’t work either because of the anti-aging movement.

“Longevity” is a more positive term, without all the negative associations other words have gathered, but you can’t call an older person a “longevitist.”

The culture’s problem is that we split aging into good and bad.

We’re unable to sustain images of growing older that handle the tension between spiritual growth, the good, and physical decline, the bad. In the Hebrew Bible, aging is both a blessing and a curse. But our culture can’t achieve this kind of synthesis.

Dee Wadsworth, 62, staff gerontologist at the Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas:

We don’t call people “junior citizens,” so why do we call them “senior citizens”?

“Elderly” is not generally accepted as a noun. To many of us, it’s associated with social services, health programs, long-term care. The American Medical Association prefers the words “older person” or “aging adult,” as do I. They’re neutral descriptions, neither positive or negative.

Boomers will never identify with “senior” — that’s their parents, not them. Senior centers, agencies on aging, other organizations with the word “senior” in them are all going to have to change their names if they want to draw the boomers.

Dr. Alexander Smith, 38, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco:

This came up as a disagreement between two of my senior mentors. One said he thought we should use the term “elderly” because it connotes a degree of respect that “older adults” doesn’t convey. The other said we should call elderly patients “older people” or “older adults,” because they are people first and foremost.

It’s not just terminology that’s at issue here. It’s our underlying attitudes about aging that really need to be addressed.

In general, I’d prefer to refer to people as they’d like to be called, but I don’t know what that is.

So much for the experts — what about you? What language do you think we should use to describe people who have advanced beyond the middle of their lives, and why?

Note from NASMM: If you have an online subscription to the NYT, I encourage you to read the original New Old Age blog post on the NYT website to review the 70+ comment from readers…weighing in on this subject from their own perspectives. Good stuff!…and let’s keep the dialogue going.

Your thoughts?

3 thoughts

  1. In my care management practice, if I must, I use the term older adult. I figure this is fair since we label other age groups such as teens and middle aged adults. Even though I am technically a geriatric care manager, one word I avoid is geriatric. I think that is a completely negative vibe. Another thought…. I have noticed that those marketing to older adults are now using the term “boomers” in place of ” seniors.”

  2. I borrow a phrase from my dear 84 year old mother…refer to the older generation as “people with patina!” Or the other one I use, “more mature!”

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