Rejecting the 'old' labels

Public scrambles for new ways to describe aging Americans

The Middle Ages

Staying young, growing old and what happens in between

November 19, 2006|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,[Sun Reporter ]

How old is old?

Are the nation's first baby boomers 60 years old ... or are they 60 years young? National opinion has shifted toward the latter.

When the National Council on Aging researched American perceptions on aging in 2002, more than half of the people 65 to 74 said they consider themselves middle-aged or young. And a third of those 75 and older described themselves that way.

A more recent survey by Roper Reports found most people 60 and older think a person is old after the age of 75. However, one in five of that group said they couldn't pick any age because there are too many variables.

"Aging is a moving target. We've seen life expectancy double over the past 150 years," says Richard Suzman, director of the office of behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging.

Those who work in the field of aging differentiate between the "young old," roughly 65 to 75; the "old," 75 to 85; and the "oldest old," 85 and above. Because that last category has been -- and will become -- the fastest growing segment of the population, however, it may need to be updated, he says.

He compares the public's vague notion of the last 30 years of life to its awareness of the many stages of youth.

"When does old age start? At 62, when one is eligible for reduced Social Security benefits, 65, or at 75 or older when disabilities become more frequent? The term elderly encompasses a 20- or 30-year period," he says.

"Imagine using a single term to describe a 1-year old, an adolescent and a 30-year-old!

"To be very undifferentiated is all right if you're talking about eligibility for Social Security or Medicare. But when you're talking in terms of life expectancy, physical and cognitive functioning etc., we need to have larger vocabularies for aging."

Which word is right?

There should be many words that emphasize vigor, says 56-year-old Debbie Swiss.

Now that her three children are grown, Swiss teaches art and physical education at St. Joseph Elementary School in Cockeysville, serves as a referee for women's field hockey and lacrosse and also works as an official at swim meets.

"When will I be old? I don't plan on it," she says. "Well, maybe when I'm 95. I probably won't be reffing a game but I'll be going to a game. I don't want to grow old. The word old isn't even in the equation any more."

What about elderly?

"That reminds me of furniture, distressed furniture. Or I think of some little old lady with a cane in a Christmas story. She can't make it another step and needs Boy Scouts to help her get across the street. There's kind of a sadness to the word elderly."

And older?

"I like that word," Swiss says. "It has that sense of maturity, that sense you might know what you're doing. Older has a nice patina."

Swiss speaks for a majority of Americans who believe that words such as old imply decrepitude and decline, says Lorin Basden Arnold, 40, a communication studies professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.

"What happens when the lettuce in the crisper is old? You throw it out," she says.

"I also don't think I'd ever use the word senior unless it was associated with a particular place. My father, who is 65, is still trying to get over the mental hump of going to a place called a senior center. And although he loves saving money, it bothers him to ask for the senior citizen discount."

Meanwhile, business and marketing forces are altering the words they use to describe aging, partly in preparation for the millions of baby boomers who will soon age into the dread seniors category and be eligible for government health and retirement benefits.

Baltimore-based Elder Health, a company offering Medicare HMOs, recently decided to change its name to Bravo Health after surveying its members and a pool of other Medicare recipients.

"The perception to the term elder was unanimously fairly negative. People who have Medicare don't want to become elders," says Scott Ptacek, executive vice president for sales and marketing. "Bravo came across as more lively and energetic."

Staying youthful

According to Elizabeth Vierck's Fact Book on Aging, more than two-thirds of the people who have ever lived to be 65 are alive right now.

If old, senior, elderly and elder are verboten, what word should you use to describe them?

"Older American or older person is a term that doesn't concretize any particular change," says 79-year-old Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center and the man who coined ageism in the late 1960s.

"Many of the aging terms that were intended to be benign, like senior, are terms people simply don't like," he says.

"They're patronizing. Young people wouldn't enthuse about being called junior. Why not just say older and not use any of these terms like golden agers?"

The euphemisms of aging are also morphing. Active adults and 55 and betters have replaced prime-timers and young at hearts. Such substitutions also challenge older people to remain youthful, says Arnold.

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