What does ‘old’ really mean? | Aging Matters | June

It’s beginning to look as though really are going to have a replacement multipurpose community center/library/Boys & Girls Club/ and senior center at the Kingston Village Green Community Park. I’d like to open a conversation about the senior center and consider calling it something else.

For one thing, those of us who are older than 60 and either just shy of 65 or well beyond that milestone are reconsidering whether we like the term “senior.” I’m reminded of several conversations with fellow Masters swimmers – we understand that the term, far from conveying accomplishment, simply means old. (Technically it means older than 26 – not very old after all.)

Why not senior citizen? I can’t improve on the words of journalist William Ecenbarger’s 2004 statement in the Christian Science Monitor newspaper: “For starters, it’s a condescending, demeaning, patronizing euphemism. It is the latest incarnation in the age-old struggle to find a term for old that is linguistically, ethically, and most of all, politically correct.

The problem with all euphemisms is that they have a short shelf life. The pejoratives “fogy” and “gaffer” were once words of respect, but they long ago lost their euphemistic sheen.

The other thing that’s wrong with senior citizen is that it speaks of a homogeneity that does not exist. Indeed, the longer one lives, the more experiences one has and the more diverse one becomes. But senior citizen connotes shuffleboard and pinochle, rocking chairs and golf carts, frailty and dependency. There are far too many 70-year-old hang gliders, computer whizzes, and marathoners for the stereotype to have any validity at all.

What are some alternative terms? Some that don’t resonate with me are experienced American, old fogy, oldster, retired person, mature American, etc. How about older adults? That seems good enough for me, but I do think it’s time to consider what we’re going to call that part of the replacement community center that will offer access to all and an opportunity for young people, older adults, and everyone in between to build a new sense of community in our corner of the world, at the Village Green Community Park. If you have some idea for an alternative to the term senior citizen, email it to me at elliottmoore@comcast.net.

Ecenbarger concluded his 2004 article with these words: “Psychologist James Hillman points out that not only is old (“eald”) one of the 50 most frequently appearing words in old English manuscripts, it nearly always is used positively and implies trustworthiness, value, and character.”

Let’s hear it for the old!