Having an honorary senior citizen card at the age of seven was a thrill for me. After traveling around the Midwest with my Mamma’s and Pappa’s senior group, they were kind enough to ‘make me a member’ because I felt all the discounts they received at various locations were unfair. In actuality, I think I just wanted a card to whip out at the counter to feel as important as I perceived them to be. Back then, everyone took pride in their senior citizen card and that’s exactly what it said across the top of the card – Senior Citizen. It was as if the word ‘Senior’ carried wisdom, strength, and respect within those six letters. Fast forward thirty some odd years and it seems the word carries an entirely new connotation, one of almost shame and embarrassment. Using the phrase senior citizen is now sometimes considered derogatory or bias. According to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, “The terms elderly and senior are not acceptable as nouns, some may consider their use as adjectives pejorative. The term ‘older adults’ is preferred” (p. 76).
I certainly agree that we should all do our best to reduce bias in our language, written and spoken. There are very obvious words such as the retarded that needed to change to people with intellectual disabilities to maintain the integrity and worth of individuals as human beings. While those are obvious to me, the change from senior citizen to older adult still seems to mystify me for some reason. I can’t help but reflect and wonder at what point in time did senior citizens feel bad or discriminated against with this title and begin stipulating a preference to be called older adults? Maybe the dispute didn’t come from this group at all? Maybe it was a mere trend within society as a whole that the group of psychologists, anthropologists, and business managers of the American Psychological Association (APA) noticed and decided to set this guideline to accomplish more respect within the older adult community and promote consistent reading comprehension.
I called up my 81-year-old grandmother to ask her opinion on the subject. She argues that she never even noticed a shift in the news or other forms of communication from one term to the next. When asked if she had a preference, she didn’t seem to find anything wrong with either phrase. She stated, “I’m not offended by being called a senior citizen or an older adult; after all I am both.” Next, I called up my dad, who is at the verge of senior citizenship – 59 years old. He too never noticed any shift in language, and stands confused about the actual age you become a senior citizen. “You are offered AARP (formerly called the American Association for Retired Persons) membership at 50, in some retirement plans/pensions you can withdraw at 52, but you can’t collect social security until the age of 62. So am I an older adult or a senior citizen or neither?” he questions. I seemed determined at this point to find someone who had a difference of opinion. Finally, after a few more calls, I spoke with a friend of my mother’s, who is 62 years old. She does recognize the difference between the two phrases. At the fear of being perceived as older or less capable than she actually is, she prefers to be called a spring chicken over either of the terms. Clearly, some of us take issue more than others with facing the reality of growing old.
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association also states, “Respect people’s preferences; call people what they prefer to be called. Accept that preferences change with time and that individuals within groups often disagree about the designations they prefer” (p. 72).
So I suppose I will call some folks older adults, some senior citizens, and some spring chickens to ensure I am offering the most respect to everyone. As a result, I put the question out there to the older adult readers of this blog: What do you prefer to be called? Senior citizen or older adult….or spring chicken for that matter? What are your thoughts on the subject?
Source: American Psychological Association. (2010, 6th Ed). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association.
Research & Community Education