It's Time to Tell 'Senior Citizens' to Take a Hike

Be careful what you call us; we can still march!. (Photo: Takver/Flickr)

On my 65th birthday, I wrote Help! I just turned into a senior citizen. But if I were writing it today, I would have used a different title, because it’s time to retire the "senior citizen" label. While the government might find it convenient to use a particular birthday as a transitional marker, there really isn’t one moment when you become old.

If there's one thing I've learned in writing these posts over the last few years, it's that being old is not a disease. Being old doesn't mean you're on a scheduled move into a wheelchair-accessible bungalow. (In fact, there are people of every age who are in wheelchairs. That’s why I wrote a big piece about universal design a few weeks ago. People of all ages benefit from using an OXO peeler or a lever handle.)

But using the word senior implies that everyone over a certain age is on an automatic schedule of decline and deterioration. And while decline is inevitable, everybody’s timetable is different. It indicates that THEY, the senior citizens, are different from EVERYONE ELSE. In my writing about transportation, I use "people who walk" rather than pedestrian and "people who bike" to stress that really, these are not separate species, but people who are simply moving differently. It's the same with senior citizens, who should just be considered older people.

Words matter

The Journal of the American Geriatrics looked at the way people talk about "seniors" and has taken a stand, telling authors submitting research to change their style and their words, because so many of the terms that are used for aging are loaded and discriminatory, treating aging as:

  • Undesirable. The public associates aging almost exclusively with decline and deterioration.
  • An inescapable decline. For most, "fading away" is tied to a strong sense of inevitability around "breaking down" as a central aspect of growing old.
  • Fatalistic. Intimately tied to these perceptions are fears of decline, depression and dependence. Such fears not only imbue aging with dread, but also impede support for policies and solutions that address the challenges (and opportunities) associated with age.

They recommend a "reframing" of aging terminology:

terms for seniors
Use this word instead of that one. (Photo: Nancy E. Lundebjerg MPA et al)

This makes a great deal of sense. The Journal notes that "aging needs to be redefined. Widespread negative assumptions about 'getting old' have led the public to take a fatalistic stance that there is not much to be done about aging."

There is much to be done before we all start getting blood transfusions like Peter Thiel. Perhaps the first is to recognize that everyone is different; I know 50-year-olds who are lonely, tired of their jobs and are physical wrecks; I know 85-year-olds who fill lecture halls to discuss their latest book. We don’t fall apart in the same way and according to the same schedule.

Age happens

When I wrote my birthday post, I got a long and thoughtful comment from a reader who said I was delusional for claiming that I "was just getting started."

Mr. Alter, you can kid yourself all you want. Yes, you aren't elderly, but, yes, you are old; and there is no way you are just getting started — you are slowing down. If you don't take this into consideration you risk hurting yourself (needlessly).
on slowing down
See, I really am slowing down in the right ways. (Photo: Twitter)

Of course, I recognize that things are changing; I'm not kidding myself. I've hung up my snowboard because it makes my knee hurt. I don't ride my bike nearly as fast, especially in the winter. I upgraded to an iPhone 7 plus for a bigger screen.

how old people feel
People don't feel as old as they are. (Photo: Del Webb)

But I don't feel particularly senior — and I'm not alone. A big study by retirement community builder Del Webb found that most baby boomers feel younger than they are. They don't feel old, and don't want to be treated as old, and they sure don't want to be called senior citizens.

So perhaps we should ditch the word and fix the language. As a consultant told the inappropriately named Senior Housing News a few years ago, "By the time we get to the boomers, I think the word senior will be retired."

Well, we’re here, and it’s time.