Successful Aging: Am I a senior?
Q. I was at the doctor’s recently for my yearly physical and was handed a medical history form that said “Seniors” in bold type across the top. It was for patients ages 56 to 60. Me, a senior at age 57? Is there another word they could have used? Why was I so taken aback with this term and category? Many thanks. D.L.
You are not alone in feeling discomfort with the term “senior.”
Here’s a personal example: I was invited over 20 years ago to continue an existing column in the Daily Breeze called “Seniors” as the current columnist was retiring. In meeting with the managing editor and features editor at the time, I thanked them for their gracious offer and expressed a small concern. Although I qualified chronologically as a senior, I did not identify with the word and thought others may share the same view. I suggested a column title that was more aspirational, such as Successful Aging. That was it.
Baby boomers in general do not like the term “senior” and want to invent a new one. Suggestions have included “twilighters,” “rejuvenators” and “elders.” (Note: None of these have become mainstream; the closest is “elder.”)
Senior Centers are looking to change their name to send a message that the center is one of vibrancy and activity. Alternatives have included “Club 50,” “The Better Center,” “The L Club” (as in the Roman numeral for 50) and “The Second Half.”
Although everyone is growing older, most do not want to be perceived as old.
Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Longevity Center notes that finding an alternative is challenging.
“I haven’t found a word that someone is not turned off by,” she notes as quoted in the Wall Street Journal (August 29, 2018.) Carstensen uses the word perennial as a substitute. She explains that a perennial symbolizes that we still are here and adds that given the proper conditions such as a good soil and nutrients, perennials can continue for decades.”
Yet not everyone objects to the term. Some are proud to be a “senior,” although rarely for those in their 50’s.
The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2017 noted that language matters and advocated to reframe how we think about aging and use different terminology. The National Center to Reframe Aging offers a toolkit and resource guide to change age-related language to be more neutral. Some of those suggested terms include: older persons, older people, older adults, older individuals, persons 65 years and older or the older population.
The question becomes, “exactly when does a person become a senior?” There is no single definition. Medicare would say age 65; Social Security would indicate age 62 or age 65. Senior discounts typically begin age 55-60 or even at age 50, which is the minimum age to become an AARP member. Senior living communities usually begin at age 55. The age to receive a senior discount varies according to the organization. Movie theaters often indicate age 61; restaurants ages 55 or 60, movie discounts typically begin at age 61 and age 55 is the usual age for a retirement community.
The next question is, why so many have a negative visceral reaction to the term “senior?” For some the latter term is connected to words such as disease, depression and death. Although these all may occur with age, they do not represent an overall accurate picture of aging. Rather it is an example of narrow stereotypical thinking and perhaps motivated by fear.
These negative stereotypes overlook the realistic view of older adults in terms of their vibrancy, wisdom, compassion, intelligence, creativity, commitment and the $8 trillion dollars they contribute to the American economy.
Geography matters. In some cultures, “old” or “senior”’ are not four-letter words. Being referred to as a “senior” is considered a compliment and honor in Korean, Indian, Chinese, Greek and Native American Indian cultures.
Perhaps the bottom line is that we must define how we feel about our own aging, resisting any negative messages sent to us by society – that includes the media, entertainment, business, healthcare and other entities. In a sense, we are the trendsetters and advocates in promoting a realistic view by setting the example.
D.L., consider asking your physician why you received a senior health history form to complete? Such form is required by Medicare for those age 65 and older for their Senior Annual Wellness Visit. And note, you are in charge of your own self-perception and identity at age 57. No one can change that.
Thank you for your good question. Stay well and of course, consider a daily act of kindness.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity