Seriously? It’s “Senior Citizens Day?” In 2017? Didn’t we bury that term along with disco dancing and polyester leisure suits? Sigh.
Old habits, old prejudices, old labels may be denounced but that doesn’t mean they will fade away. Does it matter? You bet it does. Is there a better way to refer to someone who is older? I hope so. Do we have a term or a name that appeals to everyone over a certain age? Not a chance.
Back in the day when I was a new employee at Iona (over 30 years ago now!) I probably used “senior citizen” just like everyone else. I know many people didn’t like the label even then. Why did we single out, or put brackets, around this amazing, diverse, and often very productive age group? Solely because older adults may face new challenges as they age? At what transition in life are you NOT faced with new challenges?
Over the years, what I’ve learned is that the names, terms, and labels we use are symptoms of something much bigger: ageism.
As many of you know, ageism is rampant in this country. Finding good jobs when you’re over 50, much less 70, is often difficult if not impossible. Just getting someone to serve you in a store when you’re older can be a challenge. There are so many big and little things. Just yesterday, I was looking at greeting cards and found (much to my anger) that there are still birthday cards with white-haired people on the front. The tag line? “I pooped today!” Not. Funny.
Unfortunately, like many other deep-rooted stereotypes, ageism can be difficult to pinpoint or acknowledge. Just recently, I read an article about ageism and realized that I’m guilty sometimes too.
For instance, I’ve said to people who I thought looked younger than their biological years of age that they look great because they look younger. That’s so wrong. If someone looks good, age shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t be the focus of why they look good.
My mother is 94 and people are often telling her how amazing and wonderful she is. I think it’s because of her attitude towards life: her spirit and her positive approach are inspiring.
She seems to think that it is just because she has survived to 94 and is still capable of having articulate conversations, being involved in her community, and keeping up with the news of the world. The ‘compliments’ aren’t so complementary when you think about them that way.
Unfortunately, I don’t have easy solutions to many of the challenges we face today and in the future. But I do know that we have to work, in big and small ways, to change our approach to aging and the language we use.
So today on “Senior Citizens Day” (ugh), I’m making a pledge to listen to my community and older neighbors. I pledge to think carefully about the words I use when it comes to talking about and with older people.
I pledge to let businesses and individuals know that we don’t like being called ‘honey’ or considered ‘cute’ because we care about how we look when we’re in our nineties or hold hands with our partner in public.
I pledge to share stories that remind our community that we’re capable of doing good work in our sixties and seventies and beyond, and society is wasting a tremendous resource when we dismiss older people as not having value.
I pledge to continue seeking articles and conversations that encourage me to think about my own prejudices.
And, I hope you’ll join me by making these pledges too, or adding your own. Click on the button below to add your name.
By Sally S. White
Sally joined Iona as an intake specialist in 1986. Since that time, she has worn many hats including deputy director of programs and services, director of Iona’s adult day health center, director of quality management and — since 2009 — executive director. With a strong commitment to advocacy and improving the quality of life for all older residents of the District and beyond, Sally is instrumental in the leadership of the city-wide DC Senior Advisory Coalition, which she co-chairs, and the DC Coalition on Long Term Care.