What do most people of a ‘certain age’ wish to be called? Senior? Elderly?
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Since you are reading 55PLUS magazine, chances are you are of a “certain age.” What do you like to call your age demographic?
The Senior List’s Senior Label Study (www.theseniorlist.com/data/senior-label-study) interviewed 600 people aged 55 or older.
They found that for most people — 20% — prefer “mature adult,” followed by “older adult” (18%), “seniors” (17%), “retirees” (16%), “senior citizens” (9%), another term (8%), no specific term (6%), “elders” (4%) and, the least favorite, “golden agers” (1%). The total does not equal 100% because of rounding.
“We generally go with the blanket term as ‘senior’ for people 60-plus,” said Will Wallak, director of marketing and public relations at Jewish Community Center of Syracuse in DeWitt. “We do have certain classes geared towards seniors and many of our classes can be modified for different ways for seniors.”
Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) in Oswego also uses “senior.”
“Our volunteers are called ‘seniors,’” said Erin Palmitese, project director. “This is a term used within our program name and comes from AmeriCorps, our federal grantor.”
“Senior” can denote the top-ranking class—those who have surpassed the freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. They are the upperclassmen, the ideal. They have arrived.
“Senior” also represents the most esteemed level of achievement, such as a “senior officer.” It indicates respected tenure. Pairing it with “adult,” as “senior adult,” lends the idea of a well-accomplished adult.
But “senior” without “adult” can also relate to cheapness, such as someone constantly demanding a “senior discount.” The term is also used disparagingly for someone having a “senior moment” when forgetting something, even though people of all ages can be forgetful.
Douglas Goldschmidt, licensed clinical social worker and age 72, is a life coach in Syracuse. He has not retired and remains active but feels “at this point, I’ve no choice but to think of myself as a ‘senior,’ but I don’t call myself that and don’t identify as that.”
His conflict arises from the previous generation’s perspective on aging and the current reality for people his age. Many live active, healthy lives with few physical limitations and can anticipate a much longer lifespan.
“They’re more active when younger and they plan to continue being active,” Goldschmidt said of his generation. “I don’t know anyone my age who’s retired and sitting around, playing canasta.
“I see it as another stage of my life. What you’re called is what fits comfortably. I work with groups that call themselves ‘sages’ which is much more positive. Yes, you’re older. My grandmother used to say ‘I’m old’ but she only did this as she was 90.”
Using “elderly” to describe up to six decades of human age range is as absurd as calling a 17-year-old “infant.” The term does not match the likely abilities and limitations of the typical individual.
Although a small percentage of 17-year-olds are infant-like and some 63-year-olds may have significant frailty issues, most are not. Many of today’s people 55 and older start new businesses, embrace active lifestyles and generally seem more willing to try new things than previous generations at that age. Saddling them with a moniker like “elderly” seems patronizing and inaccurate.
Nurse Michele Webber, director of clinical services and president of Comfort Keepers in Syracuse, believes that calling those in her company’s care “clients” is “professional, respectful and doesn’t label anyone,” she said. “We try to preserve dignity from the get-go. ‘Client’ rather than ‘elderly’ is more respectful.”
The organization primarily serves people around age 70.
Webber said that most clients do not want to be identified as a senior or as elderly but call because they wish to remain as independent as possible. Years ago, “senior citizen” and “elderly” did not carry the derogatory baggage they do now. “Baby boomer” used to be used only as a demographic descriptor for people born shortly after the close of World War II.
Age 51, Webber occasionally hears her children say, “OK, boomer,” to tease her when she cannot figure out something. On social media, the dismissive phrase is used by younger people to shut down comments considered out of date. Instead of describing an age group, the term has become a dig because it assumes the person’s opinion or lack of understanding is because of a generational difference—and it lumps together every person in that age demographic as thinking and behaving the same.
Terms such as “golden ager,” “keenager” or “zoomer” try to put a cute spin on aging that fools no one. Perhaps “older adult,” though straightforward, is the easiest term to use of all.
Deb Coman, copywriter and public speaker in Syracuse, is 58 and feels that age is “just a number” and does not correspond with how she feels. “It almost feels irrelevant to me,” she added.
She does not care for any age labels, a fact that hit home with her when a client referred to others as “middle-aged women” in a way that sounded derogatory to Coman.
“It reinforced for me how powerful labels are and how personal our responses are to them,” she said. “Whenever possible, I refer to only what’s required and choose to state it more as a fact. If someone needs to be over a certain age to be eligible for something, I’d just say that it’s for ‘people/women/whomever over the age of x.’”