The Language of Aging

The language surrounding aging can be sensitive. The word that’s used for people who have lived more than six or seven decades has changed with time. Bryan Garner wrote in Modern American Usage:

 

“’Elderly’ began as a euphemism for aged ‘old’, but even ‘elderly’ has now acquired negative connotations. Perhaps ‘senior’, the newest euphemism, will one day have to be replaced as our youth-dominated popular culture continually denigrates anything associated with old people…As a noun, “the elderly has undergone pejoration and is now general discussed in favor of ‘senior citizens’. Deciding at what age people become ‘the elderly’ must be left to your own good judgment. That’s one good advantage of ‘senior citizen’: American culture has loosely established that you become a senior citizen at 60 to 65.”

 

Thomas Cole, director of McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Healthy Science Center at Houston, hypothesized why “elderly” may have taken on a slightly negative connotation lately, “We’ve tried ‘elder’ but people don’t like that because it reminds them of the patriarchy of the church.”

 

Beyond “Senior”

 

But while usage guru Bryan Garner may suggest “senior citizen” there is already a rebellion against the term. The New Old Age blog discussed the language of aging last year in an excellent article titled “Elderly” No More. The author, Judith Graham, asked aging experts, most of whom are 60+ themselves, what they believe we should call adults over age 65. First she put the question to Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing. Fishman says we should abandon the practice of defining people by their age: “For heavens’ sake, don’t call them anything. Let’s talk about their interest and values.”

 

Graham also asked Harry Moody, a director at AARP and a long lived gentleman himself (67 years), the term that he prefers. “Personally, I tend to use the term ‘older people’ because it’s the least problematic. Everyone is older than someone else’. But like Ann Fishman, he balked at the idea of age as an identity. “Much of the time, it’s completely unnecessary to use age as an identifier at all. People don’t like it.”

 

And Dee Wadsoworth, a gerontologist at the Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas said, “We don’t call people ‘junior citizens,’ so why do we call them ‘senior citizens’? Boomers will never identify with ‘senior’ – that’s their parents, not them. Senior centers, agencies on aging, other organization with the word ‘senior’ in them are all going to have to change their names if they want to draw the boomers’.

 

But not everyone is so politically correct. Erica Manfred of Woodstock, NY commented on the New Old Age article saying, “I’m an old lady and proud of it!”

 

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