I was chatting with a friend last week and she used the term “Senior” to describe us.  I just turned 65 and she is approaching 70.  I found myself replying, “I’m not a Senior – I already graduated from high school and college!”  More importantly, I found myself reacting to this term with a great deal of resentment.  Why?

Using the term “Senior” is, how shall I say this, less than precise?  It does not begin to describe the incredible variability between individuals who are chronologically the same age, but are vastly different in terms of health and functional capacity.  It is not even accurate in its cut-off, as evidenced by economic and marketing trends that suggest that 10% off for “Senior Discount Day” can range from those who are 50 (on the young end) to those who must be 65 or older to obtain benefits.

This identity crisis is found in multiple domains.  Academics have been wrestling with what to call old folks for years.  The great James Birren, granddaddy of Gerontology, came up with the terms “young old”, “old” and “oldest old” back in the late 1970s.  Real estate developers coined terms such as “Active Adult Community”.  The largest membership organization of “people-who-aren’t-young-anymore” is AARP.  They got around the naming issue by focusing on whether a person was working or retired.

Even this isn’t accurate any more, since so many “I’m-closer-to-death-than-you” folks continue to work well into their later decades.  One blog cited the following descriptors:

Here are some of the names currently being used to identify those who are older than 50: seniors, older adults, olders, oldults, older seniors, young seniors, elders, active seniors, matures, baby boomers, boomers, active adults, wisers, advisors, coaches, masters, senior citizens, seasoned citizens, third agers, JALOs (Just a Little Older), EWs (Experienced and Wise), YAHs (Young at Heart), NQYs (Not Quite Young) and sagers.

Some would argue that finding and adopting a name for this new group should come about naturally, with different terms finding their way into vernacular and finally being adopted by a majority of users.  We have seen this with how persons of color prefer to be identified as well as naming in the LGBTQ community.

Linguistically, English-speakers appear to prefer using “senior” and “elderly”, at least in printed books.  The term, “Older Adult” comes in a low last place, with “elder” holding steady over the years.  Feel free to enlarge the graphic below for better viewing.


Created using Google NGram Viewer

Such evaluation of language frequency only gives us a snapshot of what is colloquial.  It does not delve into contextual use, stereotyping, or self-identity.  I remember first being aware of the word “Senior” back in the 1970’s.  As I recall, there was not much stigma attached to this term.  Today, however, when younger people hear “Senior”, they associate it with decline, fragility, compromised health, and poor functioning.  This is very different from people who are 65+ where many associate positive benefits with being a senior, especially in terms of discounts and financial incentives provided to them.

Other ways terms are introduced into everyday use are via music, art, theatre, and literature.  Here is where a certain amount of ageism creeps in.  There aren’t many aging writers creating works in TV, movies, or on Broadway.  The up-and-coming composers are considerably younger than Carole King and Paul Simon.  The up-and-coming playwrights are much younger than Stephen Sondheim.  Lorne Michaels might still be producing SNL, but the writers’ room is filled with youngsters.  “When I’m Sixty-Four” is no longer future-speak.  Who will pick up the baton and write about our current experience?

Yet another way terms are introduced is through marketing.  Who can forget “Where’s the Beef?” This is perhaps the most pervasive of the channels of language change in our world.  Yet, even these folks are having a hard time naming us.  “How-to” articles abound, primarily because those who are producing the marketing are so much younger.  Titles of these articles are replete with “seniors”, “golden-agers”, and “over 65”.  Again, this tends to reinforce stereotypes because those who are doing the marketing don’t have experience with being old.

“Helpful” instructions from one millennial blogger include the following.  (I have added italics for direct quotes, otherwise, the interpretation of the instructions are mine.)

  1. Use relatable language, (e.g., “Unlike millennials who thrive on a heightened sense of drama, baby boomers just want to know how your product or service is going to improve the quality of their life. That might be old school, but it’s what they want.”)
  2. Don’t assume other people make their buying decisions (Seniors are not helpless people who can’t make their own decisions. They are often strong, healthy adults who like to make their own choices. )
  3. Understand their criteria are different than younger generations (i.e., understand why someone would want the product and what it will do for them)
  4. Make things easier for them (e.g., be specific in how to obtain the product by pointing out where to click)
  5. Use multi-channel marketing (not just online, since we still read print media)
  6. Give them something familiar (“Since seniors grew up receiving advertisements and physical catalogs in the mail, it makes sense to market to them through this channel.”)
  7. Personalize their experience (“When the older crowd was growing up, good quality customer service was always personal, and automated or self-service was almost unheard of. There was always a live person on the other end of the phone to talk to in the customer service department.”)

The intention of this blogger is sound, and they have accurately captured some of the stereotypical issues found within our variability, but it is tone deaf in terms of delivery and gives me pause.

When I look at ads targeted at aging adults, I am looking at someone else’s’ interpretation of what it means to be older in our culture.  Based on current TV fare and what is found in print ads, I take long walks, ride bikes (a lot!), hang out with my grandchildren, worry about incontinence, don’t have sex any more, need to talk to my doctor about all the new pharmaceuticals that are available for all my diseases, and can’t seem to figure out how to use a mobile phone.  Sadly, this is actually an improvement over the “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” ads that used to predominate.

It is all too easy to criticize these attempts.  It belies the very real need to find terms that identify these emerging characteristics of what it means to age in the 21st century. I suspect we will keep searching till we find a name that fits us or until we re-claim our voice and tag ourselves.  What are you calling yourself?

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