Zoomers? Wellderly? Geri-Actives? Who?!

Challenging the Way We Talk About Ourselves as We Age

What’s In A Name? Older people have long felt diminished by catchall words such as “old,” “elderly” and “senior citizen.” Dotty Brown calls for a new language to refer to the next life stage.
Kurt Hoffman
What’s In A Name? Older people have long felt diminished by catchall words such as “old,” “elderly” and “senior citizen.” Dotty Brown calls for a new language to refer to the next life stage.

By Dorothy Brown

Published May 21, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Elderly. Senior. Senior citizen. Aged. Oldster. Old.

The words rile. They’re not me. I ski, bike, climb mountains, blog, freelance and, yes, enjoy sex — even as I qualify for Social Security. Nor do they describe an energized generation of 60- and 70-somethings and beyond, many of whom shun the word “retirement.” These men and women may be retiring or leaving longtime careers behind, but they are not “pulling back,” which “retire” (from the French retirer) means.

Instead, many are moving on to new challenges and to exhilarating pursuits — bringing their expertise and education to other venues, developing latent skills and creativity, and competing athletically at the highest levels.

Click to see the rest of the section, Click for more stories about Aging.

Take the Boston Marathon runner, shown repeatedly on TV in April as he was knocked to the ground by the first bomb. That was Bill Iffrig, 78, who then stood up and finished the race.

What got me ranting about words used to describe people of a certain age? It was a news story last year about a woman who fought off a purse snatcher. She landed in the hospital with broken facial bones — but she still had her purse. The reporter called her “elderly” and quoted a police officer, who said she was, “like most grandparents, a little feisty.” She was 66.

Now I understand the insult my parents felt when, in their 70s, they came through customs after a ski trip. “What’s in the big bag?” the agent asked. “Skis,” they said. The customs agent lifted an incredulous eyebrow and laughed.

Older people have long felt diminished by such condescension. In 1940, the industrialist-philanthropist Bernard Baruch (at age 70) reportedly said, “Old age is always 15 years older than I am.” Since then, however, American life spans have expanded significantly. In 1960, a newborn could expect to live to age 70. Today it’s 78. And those who make it to 65 can expect to live another 19 years, to age 84, on average.

People who leave longtime careers in their 50s or 60s may well enjoy 30 more years of dynamic life before they become frail and infirm — perhaps rightfully called “old.” And the cohort of healthy older folks is exploding. In 1940, nine million Americans were older than 65. Today there are nearly 42 million — a big group to offend, with boomers just entering the frame.

Anna Quindlen, in her 2012 book “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” also rails against the word “elderly,” which she admits to having used “with casual regularity” as a younger writer. Now 60, she says that as she aged, “elderly” seemed “more and more pejorative…. When people lived to be 65, 60 was old. When they live to be 80, 60 is something else…. So we face an entirely new stage of human existence without nomenclature, which is an interesting challenge, because what we call things matters.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.