Why language matters: ending ageism on “Senior Citizens Day”

August 21, 2017

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.

Add your name: Take the pledge now to fight ageism

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. 

12 thoughts on “Why language matters: ending ageism on “Senior Citizens Day””

  1. What a lovely thoughtful piece and how great that you took the time to write it along with all the other wonderful things you do for Iona..

  2. Thanks, Sally! Enlightening piece. I had to Google Senior Citizen Day because it did seem antiquated observance – with off-putting name (more so as my birthdays mount – I just typed that and yet that is your point. Why did that negative connection come into my brain?) – but there it was. Aug. 21st, 2017. I learned it originated in 1935 when President F. D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act and the intent was/is to honor their contributions in their communities and raise awareness about the social, health and economic needs of “senior citizens”. FDR would have LOVED Iona!! We need an “Iona Day”!

    Our brains need to categorize for many, many reasons. Curious, what do you think about the word “Elders”? Could that work? Thanks for all you and Iona do for all ages!

  3. Sally:
    I have great respect for the wonderful things IONA does for seniors, having lived in the DC area from 1993-2014, and availed myself of many of your programs. I frequently use IONA as a golden example I wish my area (Durham, NC) would emulate with enthusiasm.
    Yet your worry about labels seems excessive to me, as a “person with Mild Cognitive Impairment”, who was initially diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease at age 57 in 2009, and has recently been reclassified.
    Social workers and others in the care field have admonished me from referring to myself as an “Alzheimer patient”, fearing the socially conscious will descend upon us with a vengeance (read that social workers). I don’t care if someone calls me Bozo the clown if they treat me with a modicum of respect as someone who has contributed to society most of my life (read that senior citizen) and continues to try. It is the stigma and narrow-mindset of some people that limits what we are allowed to and assumed to be able to do. Let’s focus on that.
    Keep going for the gold as you have, but don’t worry so much about being socially correct. I don’t know a single person with Alzheimer’s who has objected to the term “Alzheimer patient”. It is a fact.
    Lets concentrate on what we can do about making it more meaningful and joyful to be an Alzheimer’s, Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, vascular dementia, or other patient. As a veterinary pathologist (until I am drug from my room with all 4 legs in the air), I think that knowing the cause of a problem (dementia) is helpful understanding the individual’s struggles and helping them. That was true for my parents who both died with Alzheimer’s disease, and my Mother also had Lewy body dementia.
    The travesty, in my mind, was that my father was stripped of his proper formal title (Dr. Eastep, DDS) when he was accepted to an assisted care facility, where he lost the conversation starter involving his title, and many opportunities to discuss his love of teeth and his work as a dentist. Thus, I have insisted that my ID in my current (and past) continuing care retirement center (CCRC) include my name, AND my degree (DVM) so that I get those opportunities to discuss veterinary and medical issues with people.
    Just my two bits.

  4. When I wrote articles for the Sibley Senior Association newsletter I was instructed never to use the term “elderly.” So I didn’t!
    You are wise to alert us to unnecessary denigration–especially by those of us who are aging.
    I replaced the expression about time flying when you are having fun to “Time flies when you are aging.”
    I think we can experience both at the same time.
    And never forget what one of the Muppets told us over half a century ago:”Take what you’ve got and fly with it!”
    Jane Casey Hughes

  5. Sally, I was struck by the importance you give to the term “Senior Citizen,”reminded me of when the term, “”Retarded” was determined to be discriminatory vis a vis persons with intellectual disabilities. The problem as I saw it then was that “”retarded”‘ was so often used as an insult, and still often is, and it was that mean intent that needed addressing, not the term itself. People will also use the term “”Old”” as an insult, no matter what the new and politically correct term might be. Where I come from, an old person is called affectionately “El Viejo,”” or “”La Vieja,”” or “”Mis Viejos, Los Viejos.”” Those are terms of endearment. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent term of endearment here, or at least that I know of. In the end, it is how one treats an older person that matters.

  6. The French refer to the Troisieme Age: the third age, after childhood and middle age. It’s not judgmental, and it doesn’t assume that we’re infirm or waiting to die. Indeed, it is full of possibilities and new directions: a chance to take a turn or two and have a different focus for one’s life.

    The disrespect that Sally points out is evidenced in more than language; it’s in the assumptions people make about us, based on age. I’ve had people grab my suitcase out of my hands so that they can put it up in the overhead bin for me, assuming that I’m too frail to do it myself. It’s more respectful if they ASK us if we need help, instead of ASSUMING that we need help. One way I combat those assumptions is this: I offer to help younger people with their luggage, or I ask them if they want to join me on my 100-mile bike ride. Just as the Troisieme Age breaks stereotypes, we can break them by changing assumptions about us.

  7. A Rose by any other name is still a rose – so let’s call us what we are – Seniors – When one gets to the last year of high school life, college life etc you are called a senior. Now as we get to our last years of life – we again are seniors. Stop worry about what to call us. It is a great gift to get old and still be able to enjoy life, friends and good food etc. Remember it is great to get the “Senior Discount”!.

  8. Thanks for these thoughts.

    I am writing a book about home care workers, and after much struggle, I became clear on the term for the workers themselves—not caregivers (because that also includes family and unpaid caregivers) but workers because they are paid; and not home health aides or nursing aides, because they are often working independently of a nurse most of the time.

    But I have been struggling with what to call those they care for—customers? clients? These seem too market-based. Employers? The agencies are the employer on record, usually. Certainly not elderly or senior. I have settled on patient, in part out of respect for the care workers’ point of view and skill. But I know that this is problematic as those using home care workers are in a range of situations, from needing companionship to skilled health care. I really do not know how those who are helped by care workers prefer to be known—possibly as individuals and not as a group! Or by name and title, as a commentator above suggests, because that suggests a history, autonomy, and personhood.

    Any suggestions would be welcome.

  9. This is food for thought.
    As I for one am glad to *embrace* that I am no longer “young” nor even “middle-aged” — I have no issues with “senior citizen”; for I am indeed Senior and as well citizen.

    Also, in the Native American tradition and vernacular, I am as well “elder” — a term of respect, appropriately.

  10. Ashton Applewhite author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism” has coined the term “olders” which she uses as a noun. She writes “It’s clear and value-neutral, and it emphasizes that age is a continuum. There is no old/young divide. We’re always older than some people and younger than others.” She also states that “since aging means living” that instead of aging-in-place, let’s call it “living-in-place.” Some food for thought.

    Sent from my iPhone

  11. As a Chinese American, I feel very comfortable of being old. In fact I often refer myself as a senior citizen.
    Shari Lawrence Pfleeger is lucky that she’s “had people grab my suitcase out of my hands so that they can put it up in the overhead bin”. To me, this person’s actions should be encouraged in our society, it is a case of action speak louder than words. Respect is not just political correctness, it is also actually doing the act of helping without asking for permission.
    I also like the American Indian term, the elders, except I’ve never been addressed a such.

    My 2 bits.
    Beverly Hong Fincher

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