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?