Who Are You Calling ‘Alert’? When it comes to aging, words matter

What’s in a name? These days, the media and society in general are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to figure out what to call older adults.

The word “senior” historically elevated one’s status, showing respect compared to the rookie-sounding “junior.” Yet many boomers patently reject the label and even people over 70 will often deny they are seniors unless they are accepting the discounts that go by that name. So, why can’t we agree on a positive name for our trailblazing troop? Perhaps it’s because putting a 50-year-old in the same group as a 75-year-old and a 95-year-old is like saying cats, ferrets, and pot-bellied pigs are the same because they are all pets.

Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks, suggests “olders,” as in youngers and olders. We have also heard “encore adults” and “older adult,” the latter used nationally by AARP and locally by Sound Generations. “Mature” is an alternative, but maturity can be boring. And by dictionary definition, a “crone” is either an old woman considered to be an ugly hag or a woman who is venerated for experience, judgment, and wisdom. So which is it? The title of this magazine describes a stage of our life, but “3rd Actors” doesn’t quite sing as a group moniker. Television’s Top Chef Carla Hall calls us “seasoned citizens,” a priceless word choice for a chef.

Researchers use focus groups, interviews, and surveys to learn our preferences. My statistically insignificant sample of eight elicited mixed results. One friend and my brother both get their kicks talking about being geezers, claiming they’ve earned the right to call themselves whatever they want. But I bet they would balk if others referred to them by that label. My cousin loves saying he’s “an old coot and proud of it.” I looked up coot and it fits him: “a strange and usually old man; a harmless, simple person.”

The women in my survey preferred “older adult.” They like the sage-y-ness ascribed to “elder,” but “elderly” brings visions of doddering down the street. They dislike “little old lady” and “young lady.” Overall, the group label seemed less important to them than the adjectives society uses to describe our traits—for example, referring to older people as alert, spry, and stubborn instead of focused, fit, and decisive.

I can wait forever to be called “alert” for the first time. Someone’s goin’ down if they call me that. I bristle at the use of “stubborn,” too. When adult children call a parent stubborn, it usually means the parents won’t do what the kids want them to do. “Dad is so stubborn—he wants to stay in his own home.” As if he were a tantrum-throwing toddler.

I like the term “older adults.” It separates us from a newly minted 21-year-old adult. “Older” isn’t pejorative—it’s factual and without qualifier. Simple.

What is your favorite term for people over 50? Tell us at 3rdactmag.com.

Dori Gillam speaks on aging well, aging in community, and planning for a good death. A Seattle native, she has a bachelor’s degree in educational psychology and has worked for Sound Generations, AARP, and the Bayview Retirement Community. She is a hospice volunteer and board president for the Northwest Center for Creative Aging. 

Discussion1 Comment

  1. In Hawaii over about fifty you’re called”auntie”.
    Great article which I found after being called spry and looking for opinions about applying the term.

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