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Putting in a good word for what to call older adults

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I recently was in the grocery store when a young checkout girl called me “honey.” I found the term quite patronizing. I replied, “I’m old enough to be your mother and if I were your mother, you would have known better not to call me “honey.”

Also, I had an incident occur on my front lawn which drew the police to my home. (In its coverage) my local newspaper referred to my husband and me as an elderly couple. We both are 72 years old and don’t consider ourselves elderly. Am I the only one having trouble with our language?

– B.L.

Dear B.L.:

You are not alone. It’s understandable that you were offended.

But let’s take a closer look. In defense of the young checkout clerk, we don’t know her background. It may be a question of geography.

For example, when you go shopping in the Center City area of Philadelphia, it is not unusual for a salesperson to call you “hon,” short for honey, regardless of your age. That’s just the vernacular of the region.

Perhaps the clerk was from a city where that term was commonly used and accepted.

She also might have used “honey” as an endearing term or it might have been an exceptionally busy day at the supermarket and she just wasn’t thinking. Perhaps she didn’t sleep well the night before or was stressed as a full-time student.

Finally, she just might be naive and thoughtless.

Naivete and ignorance, however, is no excuse. Much of discrimination and bigotry

occurs because of a lack of awareness with no one present to offer alternatives to one’s thinking or language.It seems that age is somewhat a free-for-all when it comes to adjectives. We describe older people with words we would not use for other protected groups. When older adults are generally referred to as being rigid, unable to learn, uncreative, self-centered and less productive than younger workers, we are reflecting stereotyped beliefs.

Using the words “honey” and “elderly” gets to a larger issue. What do we call older adults?

The field of aging is plagued by ambivalence when it comes to language. When writing for a professional journal language is less of an issue because what’s being written isn’t personal. But even professional journals have guidelines. Some request authors not to use the term “old” as an adjective. One would not read about an “old man” or “old woman” or a group of “old people.”

Newspapers also have guidelines.

For my column, I avoid adjectives such as elderly, old, aged and senior citizen and prefer to use the terms “older adults” – and for a good reason. In general, boomers and many in the prior generation do not relate well to words that can convey a stereotype.

Before we decide what to call individuals in the second half of life, what do we call the stage of life between adulthood and the beginning of old age – those who are about 60 to 80 years old? (Sociologists consider old age as beginning at 85.)

Here are some suggestions that are being used by notables:

Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford’s Longevity Center, calls that period “Act IV,” in a five-act life course. Author Nora Ephron calls it the “third act,” as does Harvard sociologist and author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Gerontologist Ken Dychtwald calls this period middlescence, modeled after adolescence.

The French and several U.S. universities use the term “La Trois me Age,” or the third age. Harvard geriatrician and author Dr. William Thomas uses the term “elderhood.” And Abigail Trafford, former Washington Post journalist and author, refers to this period as the “bonus years.”

And here’s one more: Marc Freedman, CEO of the think tank Civic Ventures, argues for a new time called the “encore years.” He writes in his book “The Big Shift” (PublicAffairs, 2011) that the “encore stage of life (is) characterized by purpose, contribution and commitment, particularly to the well-being of future generations” – a dramatic shift from stereotype thinking.

The use of terms such as “honey” and “elderly” are just the tip of the iceberg.

We have a new stage of life that is the result of longevity, good health and a generation with high expectations about their future. It requires new language for this stage of life and those who are living it.

B.L., thank you for your good question. Consider yourself an advocate, a teacher who can convey to others a new language and concept of what aging means in 2012 and beyond.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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