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Word play: The best (and worst) terms for older people

July 8, 2014
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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The term "golden ager" might get you a black eye, according to a recent poll conducted by National Public Radio (NPR). In examining the changing nature of terminology, NPR correspondent Ina Jaffe, who covers issues related to aging, has discovered plenty of terms that people despise—and very few terms that they like—when used to describe people over 65.

In an audio interview, NPR spoke with Jaffe about the reactions she got from the more than 2,700 respondents to the poll. Which terms are falling out of favor? Hint: Most of the ones you use every day.

The term "older adults" was voted the most acceptable term, but not exactly by a landslide—less than half of respondents chose this as the best term, although no other term topped it in the poll.

About one-third of respondents identified positively with the word "elder," saying it seemed "the most respectful," Jaffe said. But the term "elderly" got a vehemently negative response from many, who identified the term as denegrating because of its overtones of frailty and incapability.

Is the word "senior" still safe? Yes, Jaffe learned; but don't even think about using "senior citizen"—a term that only 12 percent of respondents found acceptable.

The most abhored terms among respondents included "geriatric," "elderly," "golden ager," and "the golden years," Jaffe said. Even newly crafted terms like "successful aging" and "positive aging" received relatively poor marks.

Unfortunately, there’s a distinct lack of words deemed as acceptable replacements, Jaffe noted. "We’ve discarded so many terms for aging people, there’s not much of a vocabulary that reflects the way older people live now."

The trends Jaffe found are reflective of the monumentous culture changes taking place within the long-term care field, among residents, providers, caregivers and environment designers alike. Terms like "active aging," "senior housing" and "elder care" are prompting plenty of eye-rolling across the industry, as reflected by presentations at recent Environments for Aging (EFA) conferences.

"I hate the term 'aging in place.' It sounds like a potted plant," remarked Maria B. Dwight, president and CEO, Geronotologist Services, Inc., in her 2013 EFA presentation. "I want to talk about aging in every place."

Even the term "continuing care retirement community" (CCRC) is currently being re-evaluated, fueled by the changing consumer expectations of the types of services offered at such communities—and residents' rejection of the implications inferred by the words "retirement" and "continuing care," noted LeadingAge President and CEO Larry Minnix in an interview with Long-Term Living's Lois Bowers. Meanwhile, organizations of all types are debating whether to use the term "resident," "consumer" or "client."

The impact of the baby boomers is changing the relevance of plenty of terms, too, NPR's Jaffe noted. As other national data have revealed, "Nearly three-quarters of baby boomers plan to continue working during their so-called retirement years, which may means that the word retirement is also on its way out," Jaffe said. "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."

Listen to the NPR audiocast here.

Related articles:
Effort seeks new name for CCRCs
What's the right way to talk about aging?
What we heard (and didn’t hear) at the EFA conference
Metonyms: What’s in name?