How We Describe Older Adults: Is It a Reflection on Us?
In my online Social Gerontology course, my students and I recently finished our class discussion of the words and phrases we use to describe older adults. It’s the first lesson in teaching empathy to a group of undergraduates who may be harboring stereotypes and biases about what it means to be “old.” Bringing ageist thinking into the open is a crucial step in helping students understand and apply the concepts of active aging.
The purpose of this exercise is pretty obvious: The names and phrases we use might provide insight into our views about the population we’re describing. And so it goes with some of the words my students, their families and their friends use when they describe older adults:
No spring chicken
Been around the block
The dinosaur age
Over the hill
In previous terms, some students have shared words and phrases like “blue hairs,” “decrepit,” “old heads” and “cotton tops” or “Q-Tips.”
All the items on this list of pejoratives have one thing in common: Getting “old” is viewed as negative, and the people who are seen as “old” aren’t viewed any better.
Before throwing up our hands in impatience with these young people, I’ll share that my students come from all walks of life: They’re defined as “nontraditional” students. I typically have students ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s and sometimes their 70s. Most are working adults who are seeking a degree. Some are active or retired military, some are stay-at-home parents, some have disabilities, and some already are employed in our discipline, which is Human Services. Some of my students have experienced great poverty, and some come from families of means.
In short, my classes represent a diverse set of demographics, so at the start of each term, I continue to be fascinated by the fact that the same pejoratives for older adults present themselves without fail. Like clockwork, this discussion spins off to the frustrations of being behind an older driver whose crime is driving too slowly or the annoyance of having to wait in the checkout line behind an older adult who is trying to use a debit card or write a check. The existence of older adults, who are doing nothing more than living their lives, may be viewed with contempt, as if they are deliberately taking more time on tasks than they ought to be allowed.
Respect Your Elders?
What happened to respecting our elders? This is a question many of my students ask after completing this exercise and seeing the full breadth of the negativity aimed toward older adults. Aren’t our elders supposed to be seen as wise people who are deserving of respect?
My frequent reply: A funny thing happens when we take the word “elder,” add the “ly” to the end and make it “elderly.” Think about it. Where does your mind go when you envision “elder?” The image might be a sage person who has acquired the wisdom that comes with age and experience. Some people also might envision their church elders, who are seen as leaders of the congregation.
But what comes to mind when you think of “elderly?” Canes, walkers, gray hair, wrinkles, stooped shoulders, arthritis, cognitive decline, frailty … you get the picture. Given our cultural values, “old” might not look like a positive place to be in our society. And the sad reality is that the picture of “old” that many people carry doesn’t accurately represent the productivity and activity of older adults. It limits their value and contributions as members of our communities. Even worse, older adults may be viewed collectively as “takers” instead of “makers” despite the fact that they may be employed, they are contributing to our economy, and they are doing volunteer work without pay that saves our communities bundles of money every year.
What’s In a Name?
So what do we call older adults when so many of the terms we’ve used seem disrespectful, insensitive or downright negative? What is acceptable? The answer to that question is complicated.
Ina Jaffe, who covers aging-related issues for NPR, says it’s an issue she has struggled with for years. NPR conducted a poll of 2,700 older-adult listeners in 2014 and asked them what they preferred to be called. What did Jaffe learn from the poll?
“I can sum up the overall response by saying that they disliked pretty much everything,” Jaffe said.
According to NPR’s poll results, the phrase “older adult” was the most popular, garnering 43 percent of the vote. Nearly one-third of those polled liked both “elder” and “senior.” But the poll participants made a distinction between “senior” and “senior citizen.” Only 12 percent liked “senior citizen.”
And then Jaffe identified the universally despised descriptors for older adults: “geezer” and “old-timer,” as mentioned above, as well as “elderly.” Frequently used words and phrases like “golden years” and “geriatric” were unpopular, as were seemingly positive terms, such as “successful aging” and “positive aging.”
To my students’ chagrin, I can attest to the unpopularity of what I describe as “cutesy” terms for aging such as “seasoned” and “mature.” In a previous job, I conducted a series of focus groups with older adults – “Medicare beneficiaries” as we referred to them – to get their insights about preventive health services. Our goal was to develop effective health promotion campaigns to encourage older adults to get preventive care, like flu shots. Before we began developing our campaign, we thought it would be useful to find out what “they” preferred to be called. Like Jaffe and NPR, we found no solid consensus beyond “older adult.”
Generally, our focus group participants preferred not to be referred to as precious metals, like “silver” or “golden;” they thought “seasoned” was silly; and “mature” was just a fancy synonym for “old.” The message my coworkers and I got was, “You’re not fooling us with these highfalutin words.”
Jaffe also points out the flaw in another commonly used word for older adults: “retirees.” Medical advances and technology have brought with them increased longevity. According to The Washington Post, average life expectancy in the U.S. is now 78.7 years. This means many people are still working at age 65 and beyond, and that trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Older adults are all around us, and rather than sitting at home in their rocking chairs, they’re active contributors to our society.
“The cliches about aging – the thing is, they just don’t relate to the way many people over 65 are living their lives these days,” Jaffe said. “They’re working. They’re traveling. They’re volunteering. They spend a lot of money.” Jaffe notes an AARP study that shows baby boomers are responsible for nearly half of all consumer spending. “We’ve added at least 30 years to the average life expectancy, and the language just hasn’t caught up with that,” Jaffe said.
Jaffe interviewed Laura Carstensen, who runs the Stanford Center on Longevity. “In the workplace, if you reach a certain age, you’re getting a message that you really should get out of the way, make room for younger people,” Carstensen said. “And at the same time, [you’re] getting messages that you’re a burden on society if you do.” Carstensen says it’s useful to have social norms and expectations about different stages in life. From that vantage point, she describes today’s older adults as pioneers trying to find their way through a new life stage.
Aren’t They People?
With Carstensen’s perspective in mind, the ageism inherent in the terms and phrases we use for older adults is a significant problem. It generally is not socially acceptable to refer to other populations in negative terms such as these, and yet these words and phrases for older adults are widely used and openly considered humorous. We freely refer to this large segment of our population in disrespectful or dismissive terms. Fourteen percent of the U.S. population is age 65 and older. If aging is perceived so negatively, then what does that say about our level of respect for the contributions of older adults both past and present?
I’ve used the phrase “older adults” for years as a result of my focus group research, but I’ve never felt comfortable with the emphasis on “older.” Jaffe points out why “older adult” might not be a good fit. “Older than what?” she asks. Exactly. And as one of my former students asked, why concern ourselves with terminology and descriptors at all? Why not refer to “them” as “people?”
In fact, in its style manual, The Washington Post has cautioned reporters against using unnecessary descriptors for age: “When age is relevant to a story, it may be discussed, but beware of adjectives such as elderly, middle-aged, etc. Young reporters tend to use these words about people who would not appreciate them.”
Ken Dychtwald of Age Wave, a consulting firm, agrees. “I think people just want to be thought of as who they are, you know, Ina or Ken or Bill or Mom or Dad or Grandpa,” he said in an interview with Jaffe. “I don’t necessarily think we’ve got to brand some kind of special, patronizing title for somebody just because they’re – they’ve reached a certain birthday.”
Perhaps my student was right. The best term for older adults might simply be “people.”