Was (or Is) Your Work a Labor of Love?
A Couple of Thoughts on Growing Old

Some Good and Not So Good Names for Old People

A whole bunch of readers sent me the link to an NPR story about what names old people like and don't like to be called. For me, the first problem was the NPR headline that referenced “the over-65 set” in a manner that felt mildly patronizing.

They report that an NPR correspondent discovered how passionate elders can be on this topic after a story about al 71-year-old midwife was broadcast:

"Listeners were furious," Jaffe continues. "Maybe once upon a time, 'elderly' referred to a particular stage in life, but now people think...it means you're ailing and you're frail."

Actually, elderly has meant “frail” for a long, long time – maybe always - and I'm with those angry listeners about that (along with some other words I don't like).

The NPR story page has a survey about names but as far as I can tell, has never followed up with results. So in a slightly changed form, I have created a survey just for us at Time Goes By.

(Some long-time readers may recall that this is not a new topic for TGB. We have discussed it several times in the past and even had a survey. But it's been a long while so let's see what the consensus is this time.

I've omitted several of the NPR choices because they mixed apples and orange – names for individuals who are old with names for the phenomenon of growing number of elders, like silver tsunami. I omitted the latter group for our survey.

Clearly, emotions run high on this topic; the NPR page has more than 400 comments and there's not a chance I can read them all but I certainly like the first one:

”I am a palliative care doctor. A couple years ago I was taking care of a woman in her 60s who had immigrated from Tibet. She was in the hospital, quite ill, and for a period of time became confused.

“I spoke with her adult son and daughter about end of life issues. One morning her son told me, 'She's awake and she is mad, she wants to talk with you.'

“When I walked into the room she sat up and waved her finger at me as she said, 'I am and old woman. I am responsible for this family. You should never have talked to my children.'

“The way she spoke old woman sounded like an honorific, 'I am an Old Woman.' A wise person, a responsible person, the guide and leader of this family. She made no effort to hide her age. My sense was that 'living young' would have been a failure in her mind.”


Here is the survey. I've also given you a place in the form to insert an additional name you like or dislike. I'll report results here on Tuesday 27 May.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today. Janet Thompson: The Box



The names old people are called are explicitly insulting.

I'm perfectly happy to be called an old man (not "old guy" or "old fella").

I used to be called a middle-aged man, and before that, a young man, teen-ager, child and infant.

Aftrer I die, I hope to be called a dead man.

I don't get too bent out of shape over what people call us as long as they don't have a critical, negative edge to the way they say the label they use. 'Old' for example can be said with affection or used as an insult. It's all in the intent behind the label people put on us and what we put on ourselves.

What I don't like and drives me crazy, though, is being called 'dear' or 'sweetie'. Those names I associate with nursing home residents and caregivers who don't bother to learn their client's names. Ya, I know, chill out! Sticks and stones.....

Like Jean, I don't get too bent out of shape (no one ever calls me "dear" or sweetie") but for some reason it grates when someone calls me "youmg man."

I prefer "Senior" because that's how I get my discounts.

I am quite happy to be called an 'older' woman/person/adult etc., provided it is in context of being older THAN someone else. But 'older' woman/person/adult on its own is a 'dangling comparative' (aka a 'hanging comparative' or an 'incomplete comparison')and therefore bad grammar.

Calling a senior "dear" is such a put down.

It has a nasty, pat on the head, condescending bent.

Call my 91 mother "dear" and be prepared for a verbal kick in the ass.

I love the story about the woman from Tibet. If only...

I agree with Jean - about words used to describe us - AND especially about the use of "dear' "sweetie" of "hon". I've always hated those - at any age.

Why do we have to be categorized? Can't we just be people...like everyone else...
I am with Jean on the "dear,sweetie, honey" thing. I have given out many a lecture on the psychological implications of such monikers...and the disassociation and condescension thereof.. Speaking of "verbal kick in the ass"...Thanks doctafill..
Thanks for the survey, Ronni - That made my day!

Any label used in a patronizing way is demeaning and, like Jean, I think the intent is more important than the name.

I also resent having strangers call me by my first name without asking if I mind. And the biggest insult I ever endured was to be called "grandma" by a stranger. I bristled and informed them that I wasn't their grandmother.

"Elderly" and "aged" tick me off but for some reason the yiddish phrase for old folks,"Alta Kocker", doesn't bother me. However, it's not how people refer to me that's important, it's how they have a tendency to lump everyone with a little gray hair (or none at all) or someone with a few wrinkles, as a frail individual who needs to be "humored" because "You know how those old people are".

And I thought they were calling me "dear," "hon," and "sweetie" because I was so alluring.

Seriously, I don't object to most of the names that seem to be ruffling the feathers of others, except for "old guy." Can't stand that!

I hate it when people say things like "90 years young." But I'm also getting concerned about all the PC relating to language. I'd rather feel insulted myself than lose any more freedom to say what I want the way I want to.

The ease with which so many people rise to anger over terms for old people suggests to me that maybe they're not so comfortable with the process of aging as they'd like to think they are.

The absolute worst for me (I'm 80) is when, and it's always by a man, I'm addressed as "young lady." It sends me up the wall, don't ask me why, but it's such an absurd way to address an old woman.

I would agree with most of the dislikes above.

But my entire adult life I have hated being called by my first name, say, at an office [doctor, social security, whatever] - have considered it demeaning. And although it is, in my experience, common for women of any age to be called such more than men, I am noting now that most old adults, women or men, are being labeled as such. When people do this to me on the phone, they mostly ignore the hyphen in my first name and ask "is this Ruth?" -- and increasingly I am answering "do you mean Professor Joeres"? Or at least I correct them on the Ruth-ELLEN.

A bit over the top, but maybe it is my eastern US upbringing, my years in Germany, whatever - I find it a putdown, a setting up of a hierarchy [I am more important than you are, my title and last name count, yours don't], and it drives me nuts. A losing battle, though.

I dislike (but dont really hate) the cutsie-pie names for we older citizens, silver fox makes me shudder. I don't mind being called old-after all children are young, 40 year old people are middle aged and old or older is much better than 'sweetie or dear.' I don't know why people in the service industry think that calling someone dear or honey is ok. How can we educate them without sounding abrupt or overly picky? I'm sure you'll get a raft of complaints about some of these names but there is little we can do about changing peoples attitudes or accepting regional differences.

I like the term geriatric. It's a general medical term for older people and I appreciate it being used though many of my friends find it offensive.

@Professor Joeres: when I'm meeting a doctor, for example, for the first time, I make sure I give a firm hand shake and introduce myself as Ms Hayes. If the doctor calls me by my first name, I simply call them by their first name. I've been calling my internist by his first name since he was a 4th year medical intern student (he referred to me as "mom" when I took my grandchild into an emergency room.) I actually liked his style (other than the mom bit-and that taught him a lesson he never forgot) and ended up with a clever doctor who keeps up with what is going on.

My Roget's Thesaurus lists synonyms for elderly as: aging (start that the minute we are born), aged (like a fine wine), retired (hmm?) or venerable. So where does the negative connotation come in?
Now the synonyms for elder--whew! That is a blog topic in itself. I'm off to write about it myself.

There was (briefly) a magazine that called itself GeezerJock. I loved the name; the magazine was kind of boring. But I got the t-shirt and wore it proudly out and about and heard good comments from most everyone over 45. The magazine chickened out, changed its name to something like Senior Athlete, and went out of business.

Elder has the whiff of faux honorific.

Some of the terms used for old people such as geezer and old-timer are downright insulting. Others are attempts to soften the idea of being old, such as golden-ager, golden years and senior citizen, and sadly have been adopted by some old people themselves.

Those terms we women usually hate---sweetie, dear, hon, young lady---are patronizing and indicate that the speaker, consciously or not, thinks of the old person as childlike rather than as a grown up independent person.

But the use of first names by persons who themselves expect to be called Mister, Doctor, Professor are insulting not only to old people but to other adults. The speakers deserve the comeback suggested by Ella Hayes and I am going to begin using it, starting tomorrow when I have an appointment with my 30-year younger doctor.

I agree with Meg, Ella & others.
Additionally, I grew up near the Nez Perce, and the word elder was one of respect, and reverence. Not sure that works for someone simply because of age. While it's not an Indian word, I wouldn't use it out of honor for their culture.

In the SF area, I can count how may times someone has used sweetie, etc., so it's not an issue here. There are far worse slights going on in this world, and I'm not eager to be upset.

In Native American cultures Elder *is* an honorific and there's nothing faux about it.

Those with white hair are addressed respectfully as Grandfather or Grandmother by the young and you address the young as grandson/daughter or grandchild. If they aren't so young you call them cousin.

I, for one, am just happy some of us are beginning to be more on guard and more acutely aware of these "labels".
Why is it, I wonder, that we so easily feel it a necessity to have labels....for things or people? Its so limiting. Its another example of a lazy way of thinking and speaking. Just my 2 cents.

I was forced to leave one of my fitness classes because the “middle-aged “- instructor kept referring to me as amazing/beautiful/sweetie, etc. I met with her and explained the rudeness of her comments. She just did not get it.
Not long ago when protesting at a circus I was called a “dirty scumbag” and told a friend I kind of prefer that to sweetie.

I remember the first time anyone called me "dear" was at a Dunkin Donuts. She meant no harm and I laughed because I thought, well, now I'm officially old as I've been called "dear".
I moved to my very short street when everyone else on it was older than I. As time passed (49 yrs) I am the last elder standing as all the others have died. For a couple of houses, their children reside there. For the others, other families came.
Being old is a wonderful thing to be when one considers how many young people have died who would have given anything to be our age.
So what one is called should be a very minor concern.

Like almost every female who commented, I say deliver us from "dearie", "sweetie", "hon", and especially "young lady" (c'mon, folks!). I'm not usually one who makes a federal case out of what I'm called, but I think most of us agree that words have power. It's a matter of degree, but if they didn't, that Sterling jerk might still own a basketball team. I no longer accept egregiously condescending terms without comment.

I can sympathise with those who object to being called by their first name - when I first came to Australia I was horrified that everyone called everyone else by their first name - it seemed like an artificial egalitarianism - however having lived here for fifty years now I realise it isn't artificial - we are actually a fairly egalitarian society - so now I make the point of calling everyone - specialists, professors etc by their first name - however a special hate is when I am out with a group of women friends and the waiter calls us "girls" - I always offer them my glasses to help them in the dim light!

"Elderly" appeared in both lists for my choices. Unlike Ronni, it has been only in the past decade that I've learned that some people equate "elderly" with "frail". I really dislike the use of "elderly" when one means "frail". I've been fighting this battle within the non-profit for which I volunteer - not that I expect to change the huge organization's use of the word.

Well, rats. I don't see your poll, Ronni. Perhaps you've taken it down in order to tabulate the results. Nor can I see the NPR's list, although I'm assuming maybe I needed to sign in for that.

I am late to the party. I am looking forward to seeing the results the poll. Remember the Johnny Cash song, "Don't Call Me Sue"? I always want to say " don't call me sweetie".

On a side note, I have put my blog on hold while I design and launch couple of new sites. One is kinda a social media type site for folks over 60. Well, my first step is naming it. Teehee!

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