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The Words We Use for Elders

Much has been discussed on this blog about what words are used to describe old people. (Here and here are just two.) From day one at TGB, we refused any of the cutesy euphemisms such as “golden ager,” “third ager” and even “senior citizen” which has a dusty, overused quality to it.

We like “old” and “older” for clarity’s sake, and we lean heavily toward “elder” in an attempt to resurrect that lovely old word the definition of which needs to be expanded beyond its identification mostly with tribal elders.

About a month ago, Marilyn Gardner, a columnist for The Christian Science Monitor reported on a language survey among 100 journalists and editors who write about aging and retirement. She makes an important point:

“…the issue goes beyond the language those in the media use. The words we all choose to describe people in midlife and beyond – ourselves and others – help to define and shape attitudes about later years, both positive and negative.”

The Christian Science Monitor, 8 August 2007

The top two choices, in order of preference, were “older” and “senior.” “Boomer” was acceptable, but not “baby boomer.” And I couldn’t agree more with this:

“’Elderly’ is the word that grates the most. Elderly used as an adjective is acceptable, but the phrase ‘the elderly’ comes under criticism for its ‘impersonal and stigmatizing manner’ of grouping older people together with images of frailty and decline.

“’Elders,’ on the other hand, can convey respect.”

"Senior citizen" is one of the most disliked terms in the survey. The phrase is among my Google Alerts and the stories listed are almost always about pie sales, bridge club meetings, menus at senior centers and other community announcements showing that while journalists may be up to date on elder language, service organizations are not.

Ms. Gardner is even up to speed on the word “still” which we have railed against on this blog:

“It’s not just generational labels – nouns – that can convey negative images. Pesky little words, such as ‘still’, as in ‘still driving’ or ‘still jogging,’ imply that these activities are something out of the ordinary, defying the norm.

“Then there are the adjectives that are meant to sound complimentary but actually boomerang. Think of spry, perky, chipper, feisty, sweet, little and grandmotherly. For one journalist responding to the survey, the cloying phrase ‘100 years young’ represents the worst possible cliché about aging.”

Hear! Hear! In the same category are two phrases I recently ran across in news stories – “encore careers” and “after midlife” because they try too hard to avoid referencing old age.

Generally on this blog, we do not use the pejoratives for old people such as geezer, coot and biddy except in playful, humor circumstances. In a recent email exchange, Deejay of the Small Beer blog made me laugh when he suggested that Geezer Flicks is a lot more fun that the staid Elder Movie List name I had given our growing list of films that feature elders in a positive light.

It's always good to laugh so I have changed the name and henceforth it will be known as Geezer Flicks. Thank you, Deejay.

Otherwise here at TGB, we will continue using elder, old and older for exactly the reasons Ms. Gardner concludes her story with:

“Words matter. Whatever the choice of language, conveying a sense of dignity – which is sometimes hard for people to come by in their later years – represents a worthy goal.”

The Christian Science Monitor, 8 August 2007

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marti tells of the human need for a sense of place from her immigrant parents' point of view and her own in In Search of My Father's America.]


You and Ms. Gardner have it right. Personally, I don't mind being called a senior citizen, because it at least gives me some sense of identity. I'll concede that "Elder" may be preferable.

I, too, hate it that most "Senior Citizen" news seems to imply that we all live in nursing homes or frequent senior centers, playing bridge or knitting. If we don't, we're sometimes considered more eccentric than admirable.

Seniorwriter at "Never too Late!"

I like elder best! Something about 'senior' grates like chalk squeaking on a blackboard. I dropped a note to our mayor (who is an elder herself -- we're both 60!) about calling the new building a senior center. I didn't hear anything back but I intend to mention it the next time I see her.

Oh! And Geezer flicks works! lol I love it!

Thanks for the discussion. This is first time I see the phrase "third age" in a list of terms that denigrate. Question: How would you (or a TGB visitor) define this period of life, using the same kind of expression. Example: (fill in blank)___ age

Well, it's your blog and you can call your segments whatever you like, but I don't share your enthusiasm for "geezer." (Sorry, Small Beer -- and I can enjoy a good laugh with the best of them.)

Perhaps elder is not a good name to attract viewers to the film list, but I wouldn't give something titled "geezer" the time of day, unless it was in a cartoon, and then it would depend on how it was presented.

Tamar: "old age" seems to work in tandem with teenage and middle age.

The problem for me with third age is that it tries so hard to avoid saying what it means.

Euphemisms are meant to obfuscate reality. Governments have always known this, naming a war department, for example, the defense department or calling civilian war dead, collateral damage.

how about "older adults"? that's what I see often in scientific papers.

Yes, thank you. Words really do matter.

I think geezer is funny and means we can laugh at ourselves which is a plus at any age.

For me, it hasn't mattered what word is used. I call myself old because, at almost 64, what else fits? It does always amaze me when I read an article about some elderly woman being attacked and she was in my age bracket.. Like say what! To me elderly depicts diminished abilities to a level that elder does not. For women I also like crone which has had bad press due to everyone equating it with witches but can be taken as easily to mean wise old woman. I care more what I am than what someone else labels me but can see the concern that words do mean things and as a group it is not beneficial to have the old labeled something that implies inferiority.

The problem with senior is it can and has been confused with school seniors. Elder can't be confused with anybody but the old. What really gets me more than names is people who don't want to accept that they are old. It's like it alone has become a bad thing and it should not be. It's a cycle of life.

I'm thrilled to be an elder. I envision an old wise woman with wispy hair sitting in the middle of young adults dispensing wisdom. That's the secret goal of my blog. (The hair may come, but it isn't in the mission statement.)

One evening last July I answered the doorbell and found two college-aged missionaries on my doorstep. They introduced themselves as Elder "Smith" and Elder "Jones."

I did my best (which wasn't all that great) to suppress a grin as I told them I wasn't interested.

I know that in their church "Elder" is a courtesy title, but I can swallow only so much irony without reacting. The notion of 20-year-old "elders" kept me amused for days and days.

"Geezer" wont amuse everybody and that's what you are banking on. I, also, am not thrilled with the term. Actually, the longer I think about it, I find it really irritating! I don't need to laugh at myself in that way. . not my age. . .just my absurdities. Let's just be who we are and not poke fun at our age.

I have to laugh at all the various reactions to "geezer", from indignance to hilarity, they run the gamut.

On the subject of which word is more acceptable than another, I don't think you can easily separate the "wheat from the chaff" when attempting to disambiguate the many eupherisms for aging. (Got my big word dose in for the week here!) Everyone has their own particular choice and interpretation, as evidenced by the impromptu "geezer" poll.

Between a few friends, one term of affection we use is "yew ol' heifer". Talk about ambiguity: heifer is a young female cow, of course.

Mere words be damned, in my book it is inflection, inflection, inflection. You can pronouce "old" with respect and reverence, or you can spew it out with uneducated contempt.

Ronni, of course, is referring to the written word and the media's penchance for denigrating anyone over 40.

Not sure that will change much, no matter how hard we wish it. When have the young ever really "gotten" older people - not until Time works her magic.

As an older person, we can understand and relate to a young person's viewpoint. It just doesn't work well in reverse.

But, it also doesn't mean a young person cannot learn tolerance, acceptance, appreciation and respect when it comes to communicating with their....elders.

Social perception is tough to reform, especially in today's youth-worshipping America, but TGB's foray into the darkness is a brightly burning light. (Okay a little hokey 18th century poetic image, but it works, no?)

Hope Ronni continues to let me be a match in the box...

I'm not crazy about geezer flicks, I preferred elder, but then I am not a native ;)

Maybe it's just a guy thing, but I use "geezer" because I often hear it used by men approximately of my age (68) to refer to each other, much in the way members of minority groups use certain "taboo" words to describe themselves--although non-members of the group using the same term might be offensive. What I don't understand is a woman being offended by the term, because "geezer" by definition specifically refers to an old man. And if that's what some of us who are old and male choose to jokingly call ourselves, what is the problem?

That's one of the points about my reaction to the term "geezer," Deejay. In my experience there are a few certain type men who get a kick out of referring to themselves as "geezers." I laugh along with them if that's the term they think is funny for themselves.

I've never heard a woman refer to herself as a "geezer" and I've been around many for many years and still am. I have heard a few women refer to certain older men as "geezers" and it was intended to be derogatory and still is as far as I'm concerned.

Some of the films on that list are just too classy to be put in that category.

Also, I don't agree with the idea younger people don't "get it" with older people. I did and I know many others who did too from the time they were young. I know some young people don't emphathize with older people until they get there themselves, but I think we're making a mistake to assume that's the predominant situation.

"Geezer Flicks" is supposed to be for both genders! That's the "problem" you are wondering about,Deejay. I don't think the list is just for men!

Just want to let people know there is a magazine called Geezer Jock available free. I've been getting it for a couple of years (I certainly am one of what they describe) and I don't exactly love it. But it is interesting for the athletically inclined.

We have a slight problem in Scotland over the use of the term "Elder" as it is a position in the Church of Scotland. An Elder is someone who shares with the Minister in the pastoral and spiritual welfare of the congregation. But Elderwoman is a wonderful term, though I don't think I have ever heard the corresponding Elderman.

I always thought the female equivalent of 'geezer' was 'biddy' and I hate that word. Crone doesn't work for me either, because I think of a wicked old hag with a large wart on her nose. (Probably from a childhood fairy tale). Sometimes it isn't the word, but the image we have gotten from previous experiences. What is acceptable for one person is a no-no for another.

Yes, words matter, but it's really the thought behind them that count. I plead guilty to saying "she can still drive at 92" because I gave it up in my 70's. I meant it as a compliment. Maybe we are getting too hung up on labels. I'm old; I look it; I feel it and no matter what I'm called it isn't going to change anything.

Very interesting that the same root word (elder) changes to a negative with the addition of "ly".

I was most surprised at the Geezer comments. If I had not read your words about it Ronni, I would have guessed you would NOT have liked the term at all.

Doesn't Geezer come, in part, from the word wheeze? I always assumed so, but never looked up the origin of the term.

Just so y'all know, in anthropological circles (eg conferences and publications), elder is the preferred and only acceptable term even though many many people (especially in Alberta), presume I work in Native communities when I tell them I research "rural elders." Re. "geezer" - its a political issue of reclamation, much like other communities have re-co-opted previously-considered derrogatory terms like "queer" to give them more power. I recently interviewed a couple who proudly displayed a sign on their door that said "two old crows live here." They loved the power of being able to choose this for themselves for representation. I think its always more safe, however, for self-representation than for others outside of the group to use.

A lot of the elders I talk to feel quite strongly about the boomer term - "we are NOT all boomers!" they insist. Boomer seems way too loaded with economic power since the business world has co-opted it.

Sometimes I will use "older Canadians," but often I will say "canadians over 65" if that is our cut-off age for our research. That seems to avoid any stigmatization or misinterpretation.

Thanks for this - its something I always grapple with.

I think that movies for women of a certain age should be called Geezette Flicks, replacing Chick Flicks for the younger set.

I was highly incensed to hear a news report of an accident involving an elderly man, who was then identified as being 68 years old. I am 68 and do not consider myself elderly. OK, maybe not a geezette either.

I just can't get my head around this. Yes, I look sort of old. I just don't look so often. I feel not a whit different and I am working at an new career quite different from my previous one with all the difficulties of start up. The one and only thing I don't do because I am older is buy a parrot or plant a tree. I might plant a tree for ensuing generations, but I don't expect to see a tree mature myself.

I haven't yet heard a title for this part of life that feels right. Maybe matriarch.. any votes for matriarch and patriarch?

Judith - patriarch kind of makes me think of the negative connotations with patriarchal. But you're on the right track in reinventing/invigorating a word.

If boomers are “elders”, then what do you call our parents? I always think of an “elder” as the oldest of a group. There are plenty of other people much older than I. My FIL is almost 96. I consider him an elder and so does he, but I’m 39 years younger than he. That's approximately two generations.

Yeah, I can't be lumped in with Catch's 96 year old FIL! I'm out of touch, but what generation is the new one? X, Y, Z? Maybe we could be the R or the S generation. Or maybe we don't need a name, although I am willing to be the village matriarch, even though I am really the next youngest here.

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