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Debating the best way to describe people of a certain age

A few days ago, a young gal asked me if I wrote about "senior citizens." I told her I hadn't written about them in years. In fact, I rarely even write about "seniors" anymore.

I'm not alone.

In its recent magazine, the AARP avoided the word "seniors" until a health piece about "An ER for You" forced them to talk about a 65-plus facility designed for "seniors."

There might be references to "Medicare recipients" and other indicators of age, but that nasty word "senior," made even nastier when followed by "citizen," is carefully avoided.

Wondering why? Go back and check out that definition of "senior citizens," the one we operated under for years. It says people 60-plus are "elderly." Indeed, until 2000 the U.S. Census classified anyone 54-plus as "near elderly" and those over 60 as "elderly."

Now there's nothing wrong with being elderly. I hope I am some day.

But we don't talk about ourselves getting "elderly" anymore. Instead, we are "aging." Which equates with ripening on the vine. Growing mature. Reaching our potential.

Yes, we're hopelessly confused about words., an online dating service, says it's a site for people 45-plus but technically "seniors" are of retirement age, according to the U.S. government. In fact, seniors get Medicare so they must be 65.

So why not Sounds awful, right?

The conundrum is, of course, the result of our extended life span.

The term "senior" theoretically covers everyone from the oldest boomer through the Greatest Generation to centenarians, those over 100.

Indeed, the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University has found centenarians now occur at a rate of about one per 6,000. When the study began in 1994, the rate was one centenarian per about 10,000 people.

No, no, no. This is not a discussion of rising health care costs.

I'm talking about verbiage.

Who are we at 65? And 110? Are we all "seniors" who are "aging" or are we "old" or "elderly"?

Why do so many of us balk at "senior citizens"? A friend says it is because she associates "senior citizens" with the old people who needed a daily hot meal at a senior center because they were eating cat food for lunch. That was before government benefits for 65-plus people.

Let's go back to that AARP magazine and an article on unleashing your inner genius. The article talks about Mack Orr, a 65-year-old Memphis bluesman who did not begin playing the guitar until he was 45 — or "middle-aged," as the article describes him.

Today, he's "part of a groundswell of older Americans finding deep fulfillment through the arts and immersing themselves in new pursuits later in life."

There's that "older" phrase again.

Then there's the piece on how technology can be a safety net and help you "age" in place. The piece even includes a description of how some technologies can help you overcome those "senior moments" of forgetfulness.

Even an organization representing 30 million 50-plus Americans doesn't know what to call its members, because the label is bound to offend someone.

I was leaving my doctor's office the other day after joking with one of the staffers about my aches and pains.

"Don't tell me you're getting old," she said, laughing.

"I'm not old. I'm aging," I blurted.

But am I, really?

Jane Glenn Haas can be reached at

Debating the best way to describe people of a certain age 11/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 3:30am]
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