If you are in your fifties, are you a senior citizen? -Marin Independent Magazine
(Rdne/Pexels) Some people take pride in being ‘old’, although this is rarely the case for people in their 50s.
s I was at the doctor’s office recently for my annual physical and got a medical history form that said “ELDERLY” in bold at the top. It was for patients aged 56 to 60 years. I’m old and I’m 57? Is there another word they could use? Why were you surprised by this term and this category? Thanks. DL
a You’re not alone in feeling uncomfortable about the term “seniors.”
Here’s a personal example: More than 20 years ago I was invited to continue writing an existing Daily Breeze column called “Seniors” as the current columnist was retiring. In my meeting with the managing editor and features editor at the time, I thanked them for their kind offer and expressed some concern. Although I qualified chronologically as a senior, I did not identify with the floor and thought others might share the same opinion. I suggested a more ambitious column title, such as “Successful Aging.” This was him.
Baby boomers in general don’t like the term “senior” and want to invent a new term. Suggestions included “twilight,” “renewalists,” and “sheiks.” (Note: None of these have become mainstream; the closest is “older.”)
Senior Centers are looking to change their name to send a message that the center is a center of vitality and activity. Alternatives included “club 50”, “top position”, “club L” (as in the Roman numeral for 50) and “second half”.
Although everyone is getting older, most do not want to be perceived as old.
Finding an alternative is difficult, notes Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Longevity Center.
“I haven’t found a word that hasn’t been turned off by someone,” she noted as quoted by the Wall Street Journal. Carstensen uses the word perennial as an alternative. She explains that perennials symbolize that we are still here, adding that “under the right conditions such as good soil and nutrients, perennials can last for decades.”
However, not everyone objects to this term. Some take pride in being “old people,” although this is rarely the case for people in their 50s.
The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society noted in 2017 that language matters and called for reframing how we think about aging and using different terminology. The National Center for Reframing Aging offers a toolkit and resource guide for changing age-related language to be more neutral. Some of these suggested terms include: seniors, older adults, older adults, older individuals, people 65 years of age and older or older adults.
The question becomes: “When exactly does a person become big?” There is no single definition. Medicare might say age 65; Social Security indicates age 62 or 65. Senior discounts typically start from ages 55 to 60 or even at age 50, which is the minimum age to become an AARP member. Senior living communities usually start at age 55. The age at which a senior discount can be obtained varies depending on the organization. Movie theaters often indicate an age of 61; Restaurant ages range from 55 to 60, and movie discounts typically start at 61, with 55 being the typical age for a retirement community.
The next question is: Why do so many people have a negative reaction to the term “elderly”? For some, the latter term is associated with words such as illness, depression and death. Although all of these things may happen with age, they do not represent an accurate, comprehensive picture of aging. Rather, it is an example of narrow, stereotypical thinking, perhaps motivated by fear.
These negative stereotypes ignore the realistic view of older adults in terms of their vitality, wisdom, compassion, intelligence, creativity, commitment, and their $8 trillion contribution to the American economy.
Geography is important. In some cultures, “elderly” or “elderly” are not four-letter words. Referring to as “elder” is considered a courtesy and honor in Korean, Indian, Chinese, Greek, and Native American Indian cultures.
Perhaps the bottom line is that we should identify how we feel about our aging lives, and resist any negative messages that society – including media, entertainment, business, healthcare and other entities – sends to us. In a sense, we are trendsetters and advocates for promoting a realistic point of view by setting an example.
DL, consider asking your doctor why you are getting a geriatric health history form to complete? This form is required by Medicare for those age 65 or older during their annual senior health visit. And note that you are responsible for your self-perception and identity at age 57. No one can change that.
Thank you for your good question. Stay well and of course consider doing a daily act of kindness.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on aging and new retirement issues with academic, corporate, and nonprofit experience. Contact her with your questions and comments on email@example.com.