What’s in a Name: Senior, Elderly, Older Person?
“You can call me anything, just don’t call me late to dinner…or elderly or geezer or old age pensioner!” Aging and the names we call ourselves or allow people to call us throughout our lives matter.
It seems there are two stages in our lives when it truly matters what people call us: when we are teenagers and when we have “advanced beyond the middle of our lives.” These are the two significant transition periods in our lives.
In the first period, we are approaching the apogee of human existence, adulthood! Remember when you were a whole eight and a HALF? Don’t leave off that “half,” for it meant you were that much closer to becoming an adult! And an adult is what each of us ever wants to be. Right?!
So it’s no wonder that children and teenagers are sensitive about how they are identified on their journey to adulthood. Adolescents, for instance, happily accept being called “young man, “young woman” but cringe at still being addressed as “baby” or “a kid.”
When it comes to the second transition period, we’re not so sure what to expect now that we are, well, old enough to have grandchildren but, in some cases, still have living parents.
I have two friends, both in their early sixties, who are “undercover” grandparents: They insist that they will not be called grandma, not by their grandchildren and not by other family members. One chose instead to be addressed as “Nana” and the other as “Gigi.” Both women believe that grandma sounded too old.
“My grandmother is ninety-four, and I don’t look ninety-four. So, I want to be called something different. Something that also sounds fun. So, I chose Gigi,” my friend explained.
The other declared, “I’m not old; I’m mature. Old is how you describe a car or furniture. Besides, my mother is alive, so there is already a ‘Grammy’ in the family—don’t want to confuse the child. She’ll just call me Nana!”
Are these women in denial? No, I don’t think so. They do expose two phenomena of aging today: One is that we are living longer and in better health, for the most part. In fact, America has five living generations today! Age and terminologies such as old become relative in a milieu such as this.
The other unusual feature of aging today is that we have options as we advance beyond middle age, beyond retirement, that folks did not have a generation ago. As teenagers we looked forward to being old enough to enjoy new careers, have children, acquire financial independence, travel. But in this “post-middle- age” stage, we don’t have to find a safe harbor from which to reminisce on our past as we await the inevitable end; we can look forward to living in new ways, doing new things or the things we dreamed of doing when we were busy working and raising children.
Whether we choose to dock in a safe harbor or to “live forward” depends on our attitude about aging. Yes, aging is universal: we are all aging. Aging is how everyone experiences mortal life. Therefore, to age is neutral, neither good nor bad. However, our reaction to aging can be positive or negative, constructive or unproductive.
Our attitude to aging, according to experts, affects our longevity. One study showed that negative self-perceptions can diminish life-expectancy by 7.5 years, and positive self-perceptions can prolong life expectancy beyond the years of its counterparts. Also, people with positive self-perceptions healed faster when they incur an injury than people with negative age stereotypes.
My mother, who is eighty-plus, cringes when she is described as an old person. But you are old, I would remind her. Yes, she admits but insists that in her mind, she’s not old. What would she prefer to be called? A Senior. Why senior? “Because senior shows respect and it uplifts me so I can feel good to go on living! Old!—old means discarded, finished.”
Why do we have to be called anything as we age? Researchers who study this demographic need labels and terminologies to assist them in identifying the different age groups. Policy makers who want to design laws and programs to meet the needs of their aging population and marketers who want to sell products and services to this demographic also need common terminologies.
So, since we will be called something as we age, we should want a “positive terminology” that references aging “in a way that recognizes the strength, wisdom and often privilege associated with chronological age.”
It seems academia and international agencies have settled on “older persons” as this appropriate, positive terminology: “it’s the least problematic. Everyone is older than someone else.” I have noticed, however, that some writers also use the term “elderly.” Here are some other terminologies and, in a few cases, reasons why they are not widely used. As you read the list, consider whether the name captures the positive aspects of aging and encourages people to look forward as they age.
Terms as we age
The Aged into Middle Years
The Aged Past Youth
The Aged People
The Aged toward Old Age
The Aged Young
The Carefuls [The Careless (youth), The Carefree (middle age)]
Elders; Independent Elders
– too closely associated with spiritual or community leaders
Octogenerarians (80–89), Septuagenarians (70-79), etc.
-has become an acceptable term
-the term of choice on the international front
Old Age Pensioners (OAPs)
– associated with being a government-agency term
Seniors, Junior Seniors, Superseniors
– seniors is too limited as it is applied to people at least 65, a benchmark age
– since we don’t talk about junior citizens, why senior citizens
My mother’s congregation came up with its own terminology for the members who are over seventy-five. They are called the JOYS of the church, the acronym from Just Older Youths.
Let the researchers, policy makers, marketers have their terminologies. Adults in families and communities can say how they would like to be addressed as they age. It does matter to our self-esteem and our sense of purpose what we call ourselves and what we allow people to call us.
So, how would you like to be addressed as you grow older and look forward?
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