You've celebrated your 50th, 60th, 70th or 80th birthday and you're feeling good about yourself, your health and your future. Then wham! People start calling you names like senior citizen, golden ager, silver surfer, geezer. Suddenly you don't feel so spry.
Most of the time, people don't mean to be disrespectful. It's just that there's great confusion in society about what to call the 50-and-over set, particularly as people live longer, age more slowly and redefine how the second half of life is played out. There isn't a word that won't be offensive to somebody.
Take "seniors" for example. Rachel Cannon, 63, of Laurel, says she doesn't want to be called a senior. "When I hear seniors, it makes me think of ... someone demented," she says. "We have a lot going for ourselves. I'm smarter now than when I was younger." She prefers to be called a "mature adult."
Her friend, Frances DeFrank, 63, thinks seniors is a great term. "I don't see any negative connotation to being a senior," she says. "We have a lot of political power and we can influence legislation that's not only for our good but for the good of all generations. It's a good time of life."
Adds Annabel Palmer, 69, of Columbia, " 'Seniors' is all right as long as I get the discount."
That difference in perception makes us shy about using a particular term and creates challenges for companies targeting products and services to this group. AARP, formerly American Association of Retired Persons, dropped the word "retired" and just identifies itself as AARP because one third of its members are still working.
This is a diverse group, spanning 50 years and ranging from the oldest baby boomers who are in their 50s to the World War II and Depression generations. Some are turning 50 while others are hitting 100.
"It's hard to satisfy everyone in that age range," says AARP spokesman Tom Otwell. Trying to avoid terms that may be derogatory, AARP refers to its members as mature Americans or older Americans. "Any term is not going to satisfy everyone," he says. "What is acceptable to some is offensive to others."
Anita Daniel, president of Market Insight, a marketing firm in Baltimore, says she avoids words that stereotype in referring to those 50 and older. In marketing campaigns, she would never call anyone a senior, she says. "Senior has a negative connotation and I shy away from it. You have to address them by their interests, like golfer, as opposed to their age," she says.
"Old, elderly and senior are definitely out in the always non-offensive marketing world," says Scott Donaton, editor of Advertising Age, a marketing-advertising trade publication in New York. "But there's no one simple way to classify the audience. I would say the term of choice these days seems to be just 50-plus."
Vexed by the lack of a proper term, a Journalists Exchange on Aging survey in 1997 asked which terms older readers or audience members preferred or disliked for people of advanced age.
The words most disliked by older audiences were "senior citizens" and "the elderly." Their favorites were "seniors," followed by "older Americans" and "older adults."
Should we even be trying to coin one phrase or should we use different terms for different generations?
Bernice L. Neugarten, a pioneer in gerontology, wrote an influential article in 1974, "Age Groups in American Society and the Rise of the Young Old," urging us to appreciate the differences between people 55 to 75 and those 75 and older. She created the phrases "young-old" and "old-old."
Theodore Roszak, author of "America the Wise" (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) and a professor of history at California State University at Hayward, says that when he started to write his book, he reviewed every term used for old people and found none of them acceptable. "Words like 'aging boomer' and 'senior surfer' are either insulting, condescending or cloning. 'Senior citizens' is rejected because it ghettoizes them into a certain status," he says. " 'Older Americans' doesn't work because they are older than what? There are more people above 50 than below 50."
Struggling to identify the older generation, he has coined the phrases, "senior old" for those 85 and older, "middle-old" for those 65 to 84, and those 50 to 64 are "boomers."
So does it really matter if we use geezer, senior, elderly or aged?
"I don't have an objection to any of those as long as they are not meant to be derogatory," says Robert Prichard, 57, of Columbia as sweat trickles down his face after running on a treadmill at the Columbia Athletic Club.
"My son calls me 'old geezer' and I make fun of him because he's balding faster than I did," says the retired postal worker. "There's nothing that would offend me as long as it's done in a humorous vein."
The most sensitive about being called any of those names are the boomers or the young-old, depending on your choice of words.
"I haven't gotten to the senior mentality yet," says Jimmy Riley, 53, as he lifts weights while waiting for a strength-training class to begin. "I'm trying to avoid it. I'll consider myself a senior when I can draw money out of my IRA without a penalty."
And he points out that most senior discounts don't begin until 55 or older. However, after he turned 50, his wife sent in his AARP membership application as a joke. He gets Modern Maturity magazine and takes advantage of the travel discounts.
AARP's Otwell agrees that "many 50-year-olds would resent being called elderly or seniors."
In the geriatric world, those terms would not be used to refer to someone under 65, says Dr. Michael Harper, a geriatrician and instructor in medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. "It's fairly arbitrary, but I think 65 has been the cut-off age for geriatrics. That's when they are eligible for Medicare."
It's the middle-old and the old-old who seem the most comfortable with common terms.
Joe Gordon, doesn't bother with euphemisms. "I'd just call them old," says the 95-year-old retired policeman who lives in Laurel. "I'm old. I'm never ashamed of my age." He says he gets respect from many people and yet he's still young enough to taking dancing classes.
Bob Pepperney, 78, who with his wife, Helen, 77, heads up the Liberty Lake Golden Age Club, a social group for people 55 and older, says he prefers "seniors." "We are seniors," says Pepperney, who lives in Carroll County. "I thank God every day that I'm still alive."
Picking name to come from mouths of babes
The thrill of becoming a grandparent ranks as one of life's greatest pleasures. That's how Charles W. Slagle V of Baltimore felt when his daughter Melanie Henigan told him she was having a baby. His wife D'Arcy had died about three years earlier. Now he would have "a new little someone to help fill the cold void" she had left.
He wasn't prepared for his daughter's question: What did he want to be called?
He started to reply. But then thought to himself that as someone in his mid-50s, he wasn't ready for Gramps. If not that, then what?
"I didn't want to make a rash decision," he recalls. He would get back to her and subsequently launched into a search for appropriate names. Going to the local bookstore for help proved frustrating. "I couldn't find anything in the bookstores," he remembers. There were lots of books on a variety of other topics, but not grandparents' names.
That inspired him to do his own research and ultimately write the book, "What Do I Call You?" (Rainbow Printing & Advertising Corp., $12.95)
He went to elementary schools in the Baltimore area and initially interviewed children himself about what they called their grandparents and how they got those names.
The result is a 76-page book that lists dozens and dozens of names for grandparents. They range from Grandpierre to Old Pa for grandfathers, and Super Gran to Big Momma for grandmothers. Some of the more unusual include Grunch and Mom Mom Ducky.
The two most popular names for grandfathers were Pop-Pop and Grandpa. The most common for grandmother were Grandma and Na-Na.
He settled on Pop-Pop as the name his grandson Matthew would call him. "I liked Pop-Pop. It was fun and simple," he says. "The bottom line is the baby is going to call you what it wants to call you. The baby could call you dirt ball, and if that's the way he expresses his love, then that's OK."