For an older generation, Baby Boomers are still pretty young. Sixty-five doesn’t look like it did when today’s boomers were born, and older adults don’t fit the traditional ‘elderly’ stereotype. In short, boomers are generally savvy, in the know, and far from confused when faced with a smartphone.
And in keeping with this attitude, retirees would love to cut a few choice words from the lips of the masses.
“Elderly”? Hardly. “Senior Citizen”? Not an option. With these restrictions in mind some enthusiastic… people of a certain age… have been working to put a more positive spin on being rich in terms of years. Unfortunately, a top contender for the best name to describe an older person is “perennial”—which has many people thinking pruning, despite the charming way that perennial couples with its younger counterpart “millennial”. And so the search continues.
“I haven’t found a word that someone is not turned off by,” says Laura Carstensen. Carstensen is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and one of the few who is on the perennial train. It’s a fresh word, something that inspires a journey of continued development and change rather than simply growing old.
Jeremy Wallach is an anthropologist who is also interested in the search for more positive phraseology when it comes to older adults. He fully understands the desire for reinventing the outdated and inaccurate connotations certain words bring to mind. “They want to adopt a new generational identity for themselves in post-retirement years,” he says.
It’s something we all experience throughout all phases of life. Toddlers stamp their feet in defiance of being called a baby, while teenagers scoff at the notion that they are not “technically” adults. Words matter. And no matter how old we get, it’s still important for people to feel that they are positively identified by the phrases applied to them—especially when it might not be the words they’d use to describe themselves.
Stanley Szott agrees. At 93, he is simply, “Mr. Szott”. That’s his name, it identifies him with dignity, individuality, and respect. Any and all other options are null and void. “We don’t need to be reminded that we are senior citizens,” he says. “You lose your identity. Everyone’s the same.”
“Older adult” seems like a natural way to refer to a specific demographic—we use younger adult without controversy, so it may be a viable option, however bland. “Elder” has a bit more zing, a bit more wisdom, albeit with a touch more gray. While the jury deliberates, it’s not a bad idea to think about these terms and how they have the potential to put a spin, positive or negative, on our perception of an individual. “Senior citizen” does not bring a sense of vibrancy to mind, and why shouldn’t it? It’s an active phrase, indicative of involvement, of participation. But it’s also exclusive, separating older adults from ordinary citizens with a disclaimer of age. As Mr. Szott explains, putting an entire group of people in a single box that excludes them in some nonspecific way from the rest of the population.
“The difference between a 90-year-old and a 40-year-old is that one adult is older,” says Daniel Rheingold, bitter after being tagged a ‘fall risk’ during a recent hospital stay. “I’m 64 and I’m not sure I want to be called an older adult.”
Good point. What is the limit? Where is the cutoff? Truly, a question for the ages.