Hozho
A Mystery of Slow and How Do You Dream of Yourself?

What to Call Old People

Although it has been awhile, we have been discussing what words we like and don't like to describe old persons since the earliest days of this blog 15 years ago and there is still not a consensus among us or anyone else.

From past posts, my views are well-known and not counting quotations from others, I don't stray from my personal preferences: old, old person, elder and that's about it.

Not senior or senior citizen and certainly not “older adult” and “older person” which use the comparative adjective as a synonym for “old” in the false belief that it's more polite or somehow doesn't mean the person referenced is old. Come on now, of course it does. Why shilly-shally around.

“Elderly” is another term I eschew as it generally refers to people who are old and medically infirm to differing degrees while implying that all old people are sick or disabled by virtue only of their age and therefore lesser than younger people.

I also don't use cutesy-pooh names like “oldster”, “golden-ager” or “third-ager”, and unless I am referring to a person we know was born between 1946 and 1964, I don't use the word, “boomer.”

In surveys, baby boomers say they don't mind that term as a synonym for old, failing to understand, I guess, that it refers to their specific generation and not all old people up until dead.

There are, give or take, 30 million of us in the U.S. - still very much alive - who were born before and during World War II who do not share the attributes assigned to the boomer generation. Personally, I dislike being lumped with them; we are older, have different experiences, attitudes and outlooks.

A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal took on this long-ongoing debate in a short report titled, “Forget 'Senior' - Boomers Search For a Better Term”, which you can read here [pdf].

I will let it go that, from the context, the WSJ reporter seems to believe “boomer” is a synonym for all old people. Further, Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, tells the Journal that people don't like the word “old”:

“For a long time, Dr. Carstensen, 64, tried to get people to call themselves old and be proud of reaching advanced age. Getting others to embrace the term was a tough sell, she says. Other, more positive terms, such as sage, don’t always apply either. 'There are a whole bunch of older people who are nothing close to wise,' she says. She prefers perennial...”

As does former Secretary of State Madeleine Allbright. But I agree with Daniel Reingold, CEO of Riverspring Health, a nursing, rehabilitation and managed care company in New York: perennial “sounds like a plant,” he says.

Reingold says his company has struggled through the years to come up with appropriate wording around this issue.

”He prefers 'older adults,'” reports the WSJ, “which he thinks is neutral and accurate. 'The difference between a 90-year-old and a 40-year-old is that one adult is older,' he says. He’s just not sure when the term starts to kick in: 'I’m 64 and I’m not sure I want to be called an older adult.'”

Oh just stop it. Everyone, stop it. If you are asking the question about when being old “kicks in”, you're there.

Referring again to Carstensen's declaration about urging people to feel “proud” of their advanced age, I disagree again. What is there to be proud of? Why should anyone be proud of being old any more than claiming pride for being 17 or 36 or 52 or any other age?

Pride of years makes no sense to me. All ages are equally valid. Unless we die young, we each go through all of them. There is nothing unique or special about a certain age compared to another.

To use respectful words won't suddenly do away with ageism but over the long haul, it will contribute to easing that particular prejudice. Given how far we have not come in regard to racism (for just one example), that haul will be particularly long given that so many people – including millions of old people themselves – deny that ageism exists.

Elders who think ageism is not real or is not important often say, “Age is just a number.” No it is not, not if you can't get a job, are denied medical care or are cruelly dismissed and ignored due to the number of your years.

In regard to choice of words about anything, I do my best always come down on the sides of fact and clarity – something we should all be well tutored in these days while enduring this bizarre era of daily “fake news” accusations from the president of the United States.

For better and worse, language is used every day to persuade, manipulate, exhalt, denounce and more. Let's make sure we each use it with respect for everyone including elders. Language matters.

What do you think should be preferred terms for old people? And why?



Comments

Seldom do I run into the necessity to mention age, except to someone on the phone whom I don't hear well, due to...not hearing well.

If a child asks, I'm an" ibaallt," meaning "I've been living a long, long time." It's playful and fits. It might begin a further conversation that's often fun.

Generally I use old, though I don't recall many places where I've had to define this. Grey hair helps.

Strong inclination and preference to live a purposely non-definitive life, whether it's mine or another's.

I am old - an old person. BTW: Your words on boomers made me realize that, although my elder brother and I (pre-boomers) survived our two boomer generation siblings. Sad.

I am old. I am an elder.

I really like Simone’s ibaallt.

I'll shortly be 72, so older adult is just fine.

Old is fine with me.

My personal preference is 'elder.' It's problematic, though, because adult male members of at least one religious group are also called elders. That being the case I'll settle for 'senior,' and I'll tolerate most other terms depending on the tone in which they're uttered.

Oops - correction - I've been AROUND a long, long time.

I like the word senior, especially in a phrase like senior discount.

I like elder the best The only problem is that we live in a world where elders are not respected for their knowledge because we don't have the type of knowledge needed in our technologically oriented world. Add to that the fact that most millennials were brought up to believe that they are the center of the world (in part because they had knowledge in the tech arena that none of the rest of us could even begin to comprehend).
I don't think I like the term "old" except in reference to someone who is and in my outlook, that usually manifests in one's late '70's and '80's (with, of course the exceptions both younger or older). In other words, I associate the word "old" as no longer active or minimally so. I do use it to describe myself at times. And I, as Estelle, like the word "senior" when put together with discount.
I agree that older adult sounds a bit, if not redundant, pejorative.
So stuck we are, with society's outlook on the aging process, each one of us, in our own old person's orbit with its varying degrees of denial, acceptance, rejection, prejudice, fear, etc.
I think you have presented us with a tautology, Ronni, one in which there are many descriptions and cannot be denied whatever we may term it.

There is only one term used toward elderly people that I dislike. It's then they are described as being "xx years young."

I've lived 86 years and a few of those years were a struggle, therefore I consider it a badge of honor that I made it this far. I'm 86 years old.. not 86 years young!

I haven't quite finished connecting 75 with being old, mentally that is. Knees, back, shoulders, hearing yes, but the brain isn't there yet.

My pet peeve is the advertisers that say,
"not your grandmother's china/furniture/plants, etc."
like anything old is to be avoided.

I loathe the phrase "she was an older person" - older than what, for heaven's sake? Taking on board "ibaallt" - splendid word!

Just glad to still be around to be called anything! At 75, I've lost three very close friends all of whom were at least 10 years younger than I. Somehow the words aren't as important.

I like " seasoned citizen. " Spiced with the passing of the years, aging nicely like a fine wine. We are getting better with age.

My two cents, take it all with humor.

Karin

Autumnal......I think I certainly like autumnal...since fall is a beautiful, colorful season full of the bounty of the summer!! Gives growth and experience its due!

I can offer this, Ronni, simply because it made me smile at the time.

In a brief email exchange with Timothy O'Brien (writing for BLOOMBERG) I told him about "helplessness so many people of my 'vintage' feel now"...to refer to our personal longevity. In his kind response he noted "In wines the only vintage that matters is the rare vintage — and you seem rare indeed."

Perhaps how we present to the world determines how we are perceived and we have little control over other people's opinion other than that. I always ask the name of people when I am having any sort of exchange, casual or business, young or my age. It nearly always improves the event and perhaps even the outcome. The expression on someone's face and often tone of voice changes at that point...in my experience.

I would resist 'perennial' simply because many people I come across in my daily life would not understand its meaning nor intent . I can offer this, Ronni, simply because it made me smile at the time.

In a brief email exchange with Timothy O'Brien (writing for BLOOMBERG) I told him about "helplessness so many people of my 'vintage' feel now"...to refer to our personal longevity. In his kind response he noted "In wines the only vintage that matters is the rare vintage — and you seem rare indeed."

Perhaps how we present to the world determines how we are perceived and we have little control over other people's opinion other than that. I always ask the name of people when I am having any sort of exchange, casual or business, young or my age. It nearly always improves the event and perhaps even the outcome.

I would resist 'perennial' simply because many people I come across in my daily life would not understand its meaning nor intent .


Because I was born in the 1950s I use the term mid-century vintage.

RONNI,

An OOOPS! Aging fingers lingered too long on the insert key. I regret not previewing myself. Maybe you can edit for me.
Thanks.

I’m just happy I can still hear people calling me anything!

I agree with Katharine about "not your grandmother's" whatever. I don't like doilies, but not because my grandmothers tatted them; they've always been ugly.

Similarly, "age is just a number" makes me crazy. Ridiculous.

I am 79 and I am old. I'm also an irreverent badass and always have been. ;-)

I've always thought of pre-boomers born during WWII as "war babies" or members of the "Silent Generation." At 75, that's how I think of myself, although I'm sort of on the cusp between war baby and boomer (depends on whose definition you're using). I'm old, a senior citizen, a retiree. I'm definitely not an elder; that's an official in a church or a wise old person in an Indian tribe. Address me with respect and you can call me what you want.

I am old. I called myself young, then middle aged and now I'm old.

I also like elder; context takes care of any religious connotation. Fine with senior as an adjective. My mother wanted to be called a "maturarian"; good luck with that.

I dislike oldster, and longed to punch the man who recently addressed me as "young lady". Re "ibaalt": this amusing term will have to be explained every time, or it sounds like Icelandic.

My friend Esther's mother called old persons including herself "A.K.'S" How's your Yiddish?

Some days I'm old, some not. Old is fine, the same as young and middle aged are fine. I've in the past liked elder, it seemed respectful. I've not liked being called a boomer, or an ex-hippie, and am neither. And yesterday when called "dear" about a dozen times by a young
waitress, for the first time, it annoyed me. It was not said in a pleasant, affectionate way, but in a horsey, controlling way.

I've been using Older Adult (not in caps though). It is a natural progression, young adult, middle aged adult, older adult... and include the ADULT! That's what is often sacrificed w other terms and shouldn't be. We are adults!

For the record, I'm fine with being called old, because I know I am, and so what! I like the term elder because it denotes respect to me, but I'm not sure all old people live up to its connotations of wisdom.

I'd like to comment on "boomer" however. I am a member of that generation, and I resent what Ronni mentioned, "the attributes assigned to the boomer generation." That those attributes (all negative) are constantly being assigned to me and my peers is a constant irritant, because I know I am not like that and neither are my friends of a similar age. How can everyone--or even most people--in an entire generation share the same characteristics? It is so unfair to paint everyone with the same brush.

At the same time, as Ronni said, people in particular generations do share certain experiences which shape them. She said she doesn't want to be lumped in with boomers; well, I don't want to be lumped in with the generation before or after me, either. I'd just like those comparisons to be neutral ones. I don't like it when people (such as some in the media) act like it's a badge of honor that they are not boomers.

It is beyond my abilities to control how others (millions or billions of them) refer to me (currently a person who has been alive for 70 years). But it is absolutely within my abilities to control how I react to any labels. And yes, not being able to obtain employment because I am of a certain age is unjust. Sadly, there are many things in life which are unjust, but I continue to try. How I am labeled will not change how other people think about me.

Personally, I think much of our concern/frustration/anger/amusement about these age-related labels has much to do with avoidance. Avoidance of the fact that we are going to die. Average lifespan in the US is about 78 years (higher for women). Calling me old, older adult, senior, boomer (I am one), elder, vintage, senior adult, etc. does not change who or what I am or how I think about myself. I am many things and can be called by many names, but those names or labels do not comprise my essence. Because my life is finite, I choose to live and enjoy life, as best I can, no matter my age or difficulties; because I know I will die one day.

I'm 76, I'm an old woman. My Dad called me and my sisters "old girl" from the time I was small until he died, his Dad brought that with him from Britain. I still like it. I'm with Salinda "Some days I'm old. Some not."

I much prefer the word "Elder". In my childhood in the West Virginia mountains, the appellation of Elder meant Elder in the Church, and/or a person older than I who had earned respect for the knowledge they had gained over the years

The Elders of my childhood were venerated but not lionized. They were not necessarily wiser than I, but Elders had lived longer and gained more experience and often could give good advice simply from their previous experiences. We respected that experience, whether it was from world travel or from simply farming all your life and learning and sharing the knowledge of the best crops to rotate.

My early training was as much from oral history as from books. We children heard stories told and re-told at Church Socials and other hometown gatherings. My Elders enjoyed telling of their friends and other Elders' foibles and misadventures as much as they did of any of their successes and gained knowledge, and we kids never tired of sneaking over to be near them and listen in. And the laughter was always warm and friendly. No one ever took a poke at anyone else in a mean way ... just in warm laughter and fond remembrances.

Elder is my preferred term.

I take Jean's "irreverent badass." That's a label I'm ok with. :-)

IOETKB. I'm old enough to know better.

Just spell my name right in my obituary.


How I feel about myself varies day by day...and as I have mentioned before, here in the south you hear a lot of “sweetie” and “hon” and it is almost without exception spoken in a respectful way. So I don’t much care what they call me as long as it’s done in the right tone.

Yesterday I felt very much the (older) boomer I am after purchasing tickets to see Paul McCartney next spring. The last time was 1965. Let’s hope I make it till May!

Ronni, - -your last line hits my nail on the head: "Old People". 'Old' and one of 'the old people' is a badge I wear proudly. Almost defiantly. Jean, m'dear, - - your "irreverant badass" is absolutely inspired! Me? I'm counting the days 'till we have my '5/6ths of a century' party. Being old'is, indeed, a challenge, - - but it's fun, too. Love to all of you. And write if you get work.

I an a very old person, but that seems to be a description and not a title that someone would use describing me. I have started using the term "an ancient" because that is what I am. I realize that is also a description.

When I refer to another old person I use the word " elder" and sometimes use it when I need to tell someone on the telephone my age.

I think old is just fine. Also irreverent badass! Elder is ok but implies some dignity and deliberate behavior that I generally don't participate in. But best is "a 68 year-old woman". And I must say I'm gratified when a young person, once a year or so, calls me ma'm. There is a wonderful poem - "You are old, Father William, the young man said" - by Lewis Carrol that I think shows us that ageism is not just a modern phenomenon.

Seasoned citizen.

The name I absolutely detest is "young lady." I'm 81 years old and don't mind "little old lady."

Wow. Although many commenters were indefinite in their preferences, there were quite a few correspondents, weren't there?

Like many others, I have my preferences and my aggressive dislikes. First among the latter is "elderly," since it implies frailty and failing capacities. At least to me. I particularly dislike it when someone attached it to a certain age. (I booed in church when the priest suggested that parishioners offer special respect to the elderly, people he described as those over 60.)

My grandson called to ask me if I am old. "I am," I replied.
"Really, really old?" he inquired. I admit I felt less certain, but to a 10-year-old, I suspected the answer should still be "yes." Fortunately, his mother took the phone at that moment. One of their dogs had just passed on, she said, and she explained to the boy that "really, really old" dogs and even people die sooner or later. He was just checking on my "use by" date.

All said, at 70, I'm still comfortable with "senior," although Simone's expression, ibaallt, would seem workable when next my grandson wonders.

The terms used to describe old people are decided on, not because the speaker is looking at an old person's driver's license, but because they are looking at the person. It is APPEARANCE, not awareness of years, that brings on the judgmental terms. It's the hair (and not just the color, but the texture and amount), the wrinkles, the stoop if there is one . . . Those are what trigger the language, based on the assumption that if your hair's gray and you have wrinkles, you're not keeping up, and your cognitive function must be as wrinkled as your face.

As for terms, I like honesty and respect, not euphemism.

In 2 months I will be 78. I’m old! I like to call a spade a spade. No term for an older person offends me; except young lady; Generally spoken by guys from their 40’s to 60’s and I don’t respond well to it.

I am 78 and have sons born in 1961 and '64....also a sister, six years younger than I, born in '46. It just does not seem logical that they should be lumped together as "Boomers" because their outlook, life experiences and age difference is too great. She would fit into the "hippie" era due to her backpacking through Europe after college, not wearing a bra, and postponing motherhood whereas those experiences were never even a distant consideration for me.

I say to myself often looking in the mirror, "I are an old lady" - just to remind myself not to climb ladders, and/or wear any skin tight clothing, not that I ever did.... (hmmm I seem to remember a lavender yoga onesie).

I do not care what I am called and am always surprised when kids I pass on my walks say Hi, or take the time to talk to me...always a nice experience.

Oh well, "remember the good things and forget the bad", as one of Kurt Vonnegut's characters advised. I find it hard to believe but, yes, I am old. Even if my oily skin and never being a sun worshiper has kept my face from being as lined as others my age, (and much younger), my arthritis and stiff joints remind me everyday, IBAOLLLT person.

My daughter interned at a national bank this summer and they had to attend a panel discussion about how to communicate with other generations. This is how they broke down the cohorts: Generation Z, Millennials, Generation Y, Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation and - and I loathe this - "the Matures", for anyone 71 and older. Personally, I can't get past the religious connotation/gravity of “Elder” (“elder statesman”), nor can I stand “Sage” or — the absolute worst — “Crone”. I have been called “young lady” and it is annoying. (Next time somebody does this, and it's always a male, I'll try calling him “Sonny”).

Mostly I don't care what anyone calls me, but given my druthers, I'll stick with just plain old Old, since it's a fact I'm not young anymore. At 60 and with my gray hair, I am always given the “senior discount” at the grocery store without asking. I'll take it, thanks. And is it my age that ensures I always automatically get TSA precheck when I fly (without applying for it)? I guess I'm no longer Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. Dang.

And there're certainly worse things to be called than Old. Geezers, codgers, and coots. Oh, my!

If I might be allowed a P.S. The best thing I've ever been called was "kickass grandma" by my 16-year-old grandson.

At going-on 82 I'm old. Bah, humbug! It is what it is.

I'll be 79 in a few days. By any reasonable measure, that's old. To try to avoid that word would be denial. So "old" is fine. "Elder" might be okay. It connotes more than age, adding respect, I think. Not sure how I feel about that. "Codger" & "coot" have derogatory definitions. "Senior" feels condescending. Along with many here, all I really mind are attempts to avoid my age, which make me feel that the speaker thinks there's something wrong with it.

Should we ever no cease to live in an ageist society - this discussion will end. Age related adjectives would no longer be used. They'd be irrelevant.

Recently, when I admonished a clerk for calling me 'young lady' when I'm clearly not, he objected saying, "Well, then, what SHOULD I call you? I don't know your name!" The answer was so simple: " Don't call me anything. Just say, "Please step over here to my register."

Words have power and calling me young lady, judging from his tone, was a power play. What a sad world of emotional scarcity when the a way to feel better, to feel good about oneself, is by diminishing someone else.

Quite an article, indeed! I am a proud Boomer. The author states ".. who do not share the attributes assigned to the boomer generation. Personally, I dislike being lumped with them.." AHEM. The Boomer Generation gave women their rights to work and have babies, the right to meditation, yoga, organic foods (yes, I did all of these popular subjects today, but back in the early1970s), + the younger-gen's Boho clothing. Let's not forget to add the women's right to enjoy sex and to live with someone before marriage (yep, got the tshirt on that one in 1973). We're the ones whose boys fought in Vietnam and yet were never honored at home. So you know what? You can call me anything you want and I'm not offended. That's what my generation taught me.

No fair lifting arguments out of their original context ;-)

Ronni's original paragraph went as follows:

"There are, give or take, 30 million of us in the U.S. - still very much alive - who were born before and during World War II who do not share the attributes assigned to the boomer generation. Personally, I dislike being lumped with them; we are older, have different experiences, attitudes and outlooks."

That's not dissing or dismissing boomers. It's just pointing out that the children born before and during the War tend to have different attributes. Which they do.

When being playful, I like "fully mature adult." Otherwise, "old" is just fine.

Old is fine, but I particularly like old fart.
Truthfully, I don’t care who calls me what. I am what I am and the names are all relative to the age of the person saying it.

My first choice is to be called "Trudi". When asked my age if the query doesn't come from a medical or government professional... I always say something that everybody knows is absurd... 15 or 143... we laugh and the question goes away. I saw one form filled in "over 55". Oh yeah! I have enough gray hair that I am usually awarded discounts without asking... altho occasionally I have to show an id to buy a bottle of wine! Go figure.

I am of petite size. Calling me "little lady" or "young lady" is tooth grinding. Once in a while, I'm called a "little old lady". The "lady" part is iffy. Do not mind but Trudi is best.

Duchesse.... I'd go with alte kaker but I think a lot of people would not understand.

Trudi's plan to give people a chance to laugh over the absurdity of it all, I like too.

Re: Being ask our age...Jack Benny made a good living out of telling folks consistently he was 39. (When he died he had been doing comedy for nearly 40 years, perhaps that was when he was truly alive in his mind and heart.)

It became a fun response for my family. I would tell my youngest grandkids when they ask, I was "39 years and a few months". They liked the math challenge, but soon outgrew that fun age. Yet, today I can actually get someone about my age to smile with that line. Full disclosure: Today I am 39 and 504 months ! With the silver hair and attitude that compliments it...I hope.

African American younger men call me POPS.
I like that.
For self-definition I like coot or codger.

I also like Boomer.
I am one and boomers are who I identify with.

I recall when this topic was first discussed here over a decade ago. We don't seem to have come any closer to resolving this issue than then. But there is something to be said for stimulating conversation on the matter and more people surely are talking about it here. I reluctantly got on the bandwagon for using the term "elder", but most whose age fell into the category that I encountered in day-to-day life rejected the idea of using that word for describing themselves -- some becoming quite emotional. Interestingly to me, most everyone disliked "senior" which remains true even today.

Meanwhile, my vocabulary accepts and mostly uses "old" and "older", but I really don't pay a whole lot of attention to the various age groupings terms as they've been applied throughout my life span. I do react whenever I encounter ageist language or treatment, but generally deal with it in a light humorous way. I think people will be more responsive, be more likely to change their language behavior if addressed in this manner.

I'm beginning to think there may never be a consensus on any one existing word that will catch on for use. I think a new word needs to be created! I wish I could suggest one, but I haven't put any effort into devising such a term. All it takes is throwing together a few consonants and vowels to create a syllable or two.

Old is what I am.

Sounds good to me.

War Baby is fine. Respect.

Senior is good- like being a high school senior, you get respect.

Dear is not okay. Do not call me Dear. GTH off my lawn!

"Kick Ass The Bad Ass" works.

As in:

(ILR dining room - it's Billy's 95th birthday. 100 year old Martha walks in juggling a case of beer, ten balloons and an unlit doobie.)

Someone from table five shouts..

"Oh boy! Here comes Kick Ass The Bad Ass."

"Let's get this party started."

Cue music:

"I Will Survive"

Everybody dance now!


Elder - shmelder. I'm OLD. Pre-boomer, pre-war (WWII). Not "seasoned" (what am I, a condiment?), nor do I like "senior" . Old works just fine. I'm proud to have made it this far.

Now that I'm here, I realize the USA does not like old people, just as it doesn't like poor people, or most "different" folks. That's another conversation.

When folks chide me for using "old", I will sometimes say, "Well, I'm pre-war -- back when we made good stuff". Other old folks seem to like that.

I'm still fine with ma'am. DO NOT call me "dear" or "honey" , I am not four.

I don't understand all the fuss, maybe because I'm just called by my name. My adult children introduce me as their Mom, and say my my name, they don't say my Senior Mom or my Elder Mom or any of that (nonsense). My grandchildren don't call me Old Gram, or Old NaiNaiI (Chinese for grandmother on the father's side). My friends use my name. I dislike all the words that try to categorize me - and for the times someone calls me "dear" or whatever (and they do), I reply with a "that's not my name."
It's difficult, this putting someone into a box - and I refuse to be put into a box. I throw away all mail that refers to me as a Senior, or Elder or any of the words - although I do like pre-war, which someone above said (in fact, I like that a lot). True, I am one person in a big world but at least I try to control my own small portion of it.

As a writer of a magazine for elders/seniors/old people/ibaallts - people 65+ - I'm so glad I came across this post, even though I'm not sure I'm any wiser after reading it.
I conducted a study on this exact subject, although it was in Denmark and not the US, where the conclusion was that people responded very negatively to "old" unless they were above the age of 85.
As a result, I have almost solely used the phrase "senior".

Especially in writing, I find it to be difficult. I, of course, want to always be respectful to the readers and not come across as condescending. I do understand why so many of you comment, saying that you do not like to be put in a category at all. That makes great sense when you are face-to-face, but when writing for a specific group of people, it is just necessary to ensure that the right people will see and read your posts or articles.

Not sure what my conclusion is, but maybe I should try mixing it up a bit.

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