Call me professional, call me nice, or call me the life of the party, but don’t you dare call me elderly. Call me a “sweet old lady” and you’re in even bigger trouble! Call me a “senior citizen” and I’m irritated. After all, we don’t refer to people under 50 as “junior citizens.”
There’s a lot of debate these days on what to call us aging baby boomers. Seniors? Elderly or elders? Mature? Or simply older people?
According to one report, 80 percent of older Americans have been subjected to ageist stereotypes. No wonder we baby boomers want words that describe us in a way that bears a sense of dignity, which isn’t always easy to come by in later years.
In fact, some boomers have become so sensitive to negative words that they don’t want to be called Grandma and Grandpa anymore, preferring something a bit hipper like “Nana” or “Papa” befitting a more youthful attitude toward life.
After all, think of some of the words used to describe older people – derogatory terms like old codger, geezer, biddy, coot, fossil, hag, fart, and fogey.
And don’t you hate it when a waitress or sales clerk calls you “dear” or “dearie” which is supposed to sound endearing but just sounds downright demeaning? Next Avenue readers reacted strongly to an article “The Negative Effects of Elderspeak, emphasizing that they find words such as “honey,” “sweetie” and “young lady” to be at best, rude, and at worst, disrespectful.
Consider all the insulting terms like “a senior moment,” which suggests that normal forgetfulness that can happen at any age is somehow tied only to getting older. Or the phrase “still driving” as if this is some kind of a miraculous accomplishment for older adults.
Even the term “seniors” seems aimed at creating barriers, especially in the workplace.
So, the search for better words continues.
A survey by The Journalists Exchange on Aging interviewed journalists who write about retirement and aging to find out which words they prefer to use when describing those over 50. The top choice was “older,” followed by “seniors,” (but only to describe those older than 65). Age-specific references such as “those over 50” or “people 65 and up” also won approval among the journalists.
“Senior citizen” was on the list of “mostly disliked” terms which some considered dehumanizing. “Elderly” was the word that grated the most, coming under criticism for its “impersonal and stigmatizing manner” of grouping older people with images of frailty and decline.
The term “boomers” was fine with survey participants, but not “baby boomers.” “They’re not babies anymore,” one respondent noted. Some journalists in the survey criticized “mature” as one of those words so deliberately, self-consciously “correct” – striving for linguistic neutrality – that they seem silly.
Another media guide on reporting issued by The International Longevity Center and ageism campaign group Aging Services of California suggested using terms like “older people” or simply “man” or “woman” followed by his or her age if relevant to the story. The guide added that using positive terms was “an important step in overcoming ageist language and beliefs.”
Alex Juarez, Communications Director for AARP Arizona agreed that we need to get rid of the negative stigma attached to getting older. “In reality, aging gives us experience,” he said. “At AARP, we don’t think we should be defined by age. For a couple of years, we have been using the term 50 plus. That’s important because we don’t want people to be identified as seniors.”
Some staff members at AARP The Magazine, favor a more playful approach to language. “We use the word grown-ups a lot,” said editor and vice president of AARP Steven Slon. He points to a feature called “Movies for Grownups” as an example. He adds that those who are older “don’t want to be marginalized and put off in a category of people who simply get discounts but are not to be taken seriously.”
Of course, the question of what to call those over 50 isn’t simply one for the media. The words that people in general use to describe us help define and shape attitudes about growing older. So, the debate continues.
What word do you prefer to describe us baby boomers? What word do you find insulting? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.