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As baby boomers hit retirement age, companies and governments adapt to demographic change.

Just when you're beginning to come to terms with the idea that you might be considered middle-aged, you turn 50 and receive a "welcome" letter from AARP.

"Oh, puhleez," you think.

Nevertheless, the seed has been planted. When does "seniorhood" begin, anyway? And who says so?

"It's becoming a gray area, excuse the pun," said demographer William Frey of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.

The term "senior citizen" is used for legal and policy reasons to determine eligibility for certain benefits, but usually it's used for marketing.

Lowering the threshold, at least psychologically, is AARP, which offers membership beginning at age 50.

The proprietor of the Oregon Inn in suburban Toledo, Ohio, said the senior menu is available to people at least 59 1/2 years old. That's the age at which one can withdraw without penalty from IRAs and 401(k)s, reasons owner Art Richardson, who admitted he gets funny looks when he explains that to inquiring patrons.He does not card.

In Canada, the Old Age Security pension is available to almost everyone at age 65, even if they're working or have never worked.

The American gold standard has long been Social Security. At 62, people can receive a reduced check. At one time, the age to receive the full sum was 65; it's now 66 and will gradually rise to 67 for those born in or after 1960, making it one of the oldest in the world for full benefits.

McDonald's takes a relaxed approach to its senior discount, which provides a small coffee or beverage for half price. Calls to McDonald's to discern the senior coffee age resulted in these answers: 50, 55, 60, "I'll believe you whatever you say" and the most endearing of all, "If you look it."

"The word 'senior' is something many people like to avoid. But a lot of people want to get those senior discounts," Frey said. "This idea of 'seniors' will have to be used in a more delicate way in the future, perhaps 'mature adults.' "

But as the 78 million to 80 million post-World War II baby boomers (born 1946 through 1964) rock on into their golden years (the first turned 65 last year), he expects some things will change. For example, given their sheer masses, businesses may follow Social Security's suit and raise the age for discounts.

Moreover, healthy and financially secure sexagenarians aren't likely to act old, he notes; consequently, future marketers may add value to that demographic. The most lucrative demographic in the world of television, for example, is considered to be 25 to 54 years old, but that could stretch on the top end.

The grayest gray area, said Frey (who, at age 64, works both in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Washington, D.C., for the Brookings Institution), is 60 to 70. Perhaps that decade should be dubbed "advanced middle age," he suggested, adding, "It's safe to call people 'seniors' at 70."

Jean Molitor, a staff psychiatrist at Toledo-based Harbor Behavioral Healthcare, said boomers have a forever-young attitude.

"People are living longer and they want to be healthy," Molitor said. "Healthy people think, 'I'm not old.' It's really very individualized. You have to look at whether you see yourself as old.

"I have patients in their 80s, but I think of them as being in their 60s, because they're healthy."