How Names Influence Perception: Community and Aging

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You know what I don’t like? I don’t like the word “elderly.” I’m not a big fan of “senior citizen” or “person of a certain age,” either. There is no perfect option it seems. When you go to a store that offers a discount by age they call it a senior discount. I sometimes think I would like to hear “wisdom discount” instead.

See, the words we use have meaning. For instance, “elderly” and “elder” have entirely different connotations. I don’t need to tell you which one is negative. Yet, our society doesn’t see much wrong with the use of these terms to describe individuals past middle age. I admit, I am not even a particular fan of the term “Baby Boomers.”

So where does this leave us? Well, as it turns out I am not the only person who isn’t a fan of the names we currently use for people in my age group.

In 2012, New York Times writer Judith Graham tacked the subject in her column “The New Old Age.” While she explores the idea that maybe we should stop creating categories in the first place she acknowledges that they can be helpful in many forms of communication. In her article she quotes a number of experts on the subject but like me is left unsatisfied with many of their answers.

The same year Rebecca Nappi of The Spokesman-Review made a case for “Baby Boomers,” or just “Boomers.” Like Graham, Nappi talks to multiple people who feel we should eliminate categorical names all together.

But this conversation isn’t relegated to this decade. Seven years ago columnist Marilyn Gardner of the Christian Science Monitor wrote about her concerns.

I like what gerontologist Dee Wadsworth has to say:

As a gerontologist I use the phrase “older adult.” Cohort words like Senior and Boomer refer to specific generations. Boomers will never respond to the term senior because that was their parent. I was taught to avoid ageism best to use older adult just like we use younger adult. It refers to the continuum of lifespan development.

It’s not just terminology that’s at issue here. It’s our underlying attitudes about aging that really need to be addressed.

Yes, that’s right. It isn’t the actual, specific words that are the problem. It is the meaning and cultural attitudes that surround them. Because we lump a group of older adults into the category of Elderly or Senior we are perpetuating certain strongly held beliefs that may or may not be true of all the people who are being described. This is a systemic problem and the same issue that leads us to a culture where nursing homes and retirement communities are the norm rather than aging in place or within communities. In order the change the conversation of where we live as we age we need to change society’s perception of who is in need of these kinds of solutions. And that starts with language.

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Comments

  1. I’ve struggled with vocabulary in this area myself. I like the term “older adult”. I’m wondering if we need some new words here to describe the different groups of older adults.

  2. Agree that we are usually all lumped into the same (possibly misleading) category, e.g., frail, sick, etc. over a certain age. I am 65, yet have as little in common with someone 30 years older than a 35 year old has in common with a 65 year old.

  3. Cynthia Wood says:

    I, too, struggle with what to word to use to describe older adults, and agree that it is a very important topic for discussion. For myself, the quandary of what word to use for myself and others (I’m 62) started when I realized I was reluctant to even consider myself a “senior.” Although it was a challenging wrestling with the idea of being of senior age, I think I have surmounted this, but am now left with what term to actually use. I had to laugh when reading the Dee Wadsworth quote, “Boomers will never respond to the term senior because that was their parent.” How true, at least for me anyway! I kind of like the term, elder, because for me, it conjures up an image of an older adult who is both wise and respected. Of course, this is how I would like to be thought of. How quickly my reaction changes when just two letters are added, “ly.” Yikes! I guess there may never be one word that we can all agree on as being the best word to use. But it is still import to have the dialogue, because it can not only help us determine how we see ourselves, but also how others view us. And being thought of as vibrant, wise, useful, and wonderful is important–at any age!

  4. Clearly language (nomenclature especially) plays an important role in society’s perceptions of its members, but as mentioned by another writer, it’s not the actual term that determines the connotations, but rather the pre-existing connotations that become entwined with the terms. Yes, “elderly” has some stereotypical implications, as does “elder,” “old person,” “senior citizen,” etc. The doctor’s proposed term “older adult” will take on the same nuances. Our society is too afraid of being blunt; hence, the euphemisms, and not just for age. There are no “problems” anymore; there are “issues.” Secretary no, “administrative assistant” yes. “Addict” no, “substance abuser” yes. “Used” car no, “previously loved,” “gently pre-owned,” etc. yes. I’d add that “graceful aging” is euphemistic; I’m not sure what it’s supposed to gloss over, but I can feel it is (and I’m an aging person the term is meant to apply to: every human alive is “aging,” but would you say a well-behaved teenager is “aging gracefully?” … I rest my case.

    There’s a great piece of writing by Roger Angell that ran in The New Yorker earlier this year, about his “getting up in years” or “slowing down.” I appreciate his candor and mordancy in lieu of beating around the proverbial bush. Here’s the link: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/02/17/old-man-3

  5. I AM 78 YEARS OLD AND AM PERFECTLY HAPPY BEING CALLED A SENIOR. I’M EVEN HAPPIER WHEN I GET A SENIOR DISCOUNT! I DON’T PREFER BEING CALLED ELDERLY, BUT I DON’T DENY IT EITHER. I HAVE SOMETIMES REFERRED TO MYSELF AS: “THIS OLD LADY”, WHICH I’M SURE MANY WOULD FIND REPUGNANT, BUT I FIND AMUSING. WHY SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF! I ALSO BRAG ABOUT HOW OLD I AM, WHEN I AM DRIVING PEOPLE TO THE POLLS OR ATTENDING MY TWICE WEEKLY AEROBICS CLASS OR SERVING ON THE BOARD OF A NON-PROFIT. WHO CARES HOW PEOPLE DESCRIBE ME.

  6. In addition to general terms for older people, our own personal name can categorize us. As a “Barbara,” everyone knows what generation I come from. Even though I am physically and mentally youthful, everyone can easily categorize me by my name. I have given serious consideration to changing my name, and have picked out a new one that would make not put me in a target age group. I do not want to be discriminated against at work. Has anyone else experienced being unfavorably treated because of their name?

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