NPR Survey Reveals Despised And Acceptable Terms For Aging

There's a scarcity of terms for describing older adults and the aging process. At least there aren't that many that most older people don't find offensive.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging. And on a recent program, we discussed a problem that she's encountered on her beat - what to call the people she covers. Now this led to us asking you all for some terms. We polled our listeners, but listen back to what she told us in that first conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Maybe, once upon a time, elderly referred to a particular stage in life, but now people think of it as - means you're ailing and you're frail.

MONTAGNE: OK. So what do you call older people?

JAFFE: Older people or older adults. If it's relevant, sometimes I say older Americans. Sometimes I use the term senior, though I've met some older people who don't like that either.

MONTAGNE: So that was from our last conversation, and at the time, we asked you to weigh in and tell us the terms for aging that you love and that you hate. And Ina joins me now again to talk about the results of that poll. Good morning.

JAFFE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the positives. What terms did listeners say they actually like?

JAFFE: Well, more than 2,700 people responded, and the winner and still champion was older adult, though you can't say there was any real enthusiasm for it among our poll takers. Just 43 percent of them said they liked it.

MONTAGNE: So it was an acceptable term, but was older adult the only term that people would sort of settle for?

JAFFE: Well, almost a third of the respondents liked elder. We received a lot of comments online from people who felt that the term was the most respectful. And about a third thought senior was fine, though if you put the word citizen after it, the favorable rating dropped to less than 12 percent.

MONTAGNE: So senior citizen - forget that. Let's - don't mention it. Which term had the dubious distinction of being the most despised?

JAFFE: Well, first, I should say that the category of dislikes had the most enthusiasm. There were about three and a half times more votes cast for terms that didn't like than for terms that they liked. And I can sum up the overall response by saying that they disliked pretty much everything.

MONTAGNE: I mean, the choices being?

JAFFE: Well, there were some terms you might expect to get a negative response like geezer, old-timer, the aforementioned elderly. But even expressions often used in a positive context like positive aging or successful aging - a majority of gave them thumbs down. A couple of other common terms, golden years and geriatric - the vast majority disapproved.

MONTAGNE: It sounds then like we're back to older adult or senior, and there don't seem to be a lot of options if you're talking about people in the age group of older people.

JAFFE: Well, you're right, Renee. I mean, we've discarded so many terms for aging people. There's not much of a vocabulary that reflects the many older adults live now. I mean, who thinks of Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger as enjoying their golden years? I mean, I realize that most older people aren't rock stars, but still, they're living longer and staying healthier longer and working longer. In fact, in another poll earlier this month, the more scientific poll than ours - that poll found that nearly three quarters of baby boomers plan to continue working during their so-called retirement years, which may mean that the word retirement is also on its way out. The point is we're getting rid of a lot of these traditional terms for aging, but we haven't come up with anything to replace them that reflects what life is like now.

MONTAGNE: Well, Ina, thank you very much.

JAFFE: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: And that's NPR's Ina Jaffe, whose beat is aging. This is NPR News.

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