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.
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To keep pace with the changing times, Elderhostel got rid of “elder” and became Road Scholar in 2010. Today, programs once aimed at “seniors” are now for “life learners.” AARP wants you to forget that its acronym once stood for the American Association of Retired Persons.

The idea of “adolescence” gradually took hold after centuries in which children went straight to adulthood, working in fields or factories. That changed in 1904 with the publication of psychologist G. Stanley Hall’s “Adolescence.” Now there’s a drumbeat to name yet another emerging life stage, the one before frailty and dependence set in.

In her 2006 book, “Doing Sixty & Seventy,” Gloria Steinem writes: “I’m beginning to see that life after 50 or 60 is itself another country, as different as adolescence is from childhood, or as adulthood is from adolescence — and just as adventurous…. If it’s to become a place of dignity and power, it will require a movement as big as any other.”

In recent years, writers, sociologists and others have proposed names for later life. Parade magazine readers, in a contest, suggested “seasoned citizens,” “geri-actives,” “zoomers” and “wellderly.” Others have proposed “third act,” “middlescence” and “late middle age.”

Marc Freedman, a leader in the movement to recast the image of older people, founded Encore.org (formerly Experience Corps) and the Purpose Prize. “Never before have so many people had so much experience and the time and the capacity to do something significant with it,” Freedman writes. “That’s the gift of longevity.”

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, titled her 2009 book “The Third Chapter” and calls this time of life “the generative space that follows young adulthood and middle age.”

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, in her 2010 book “Composing a Further Life,” argues that the challenge in growing older is to find ways to contribute by drawing on “the wisdom culled from long lives and rich experience.” Conversely, society’s challenge is “to recognize that contribution and to benefit from it instead of dismissing it.”

So, what to call people like me? I’m okay with “older person” or “late middle aged,” which is how I feel. Better yet, I’m in my “encore” stage of life. Or you could just cite my age, 67.

Perhaps Quindlen says it best: “After the middle ages comes the renaissance.”

Dotty Brown is formerly the enterprise editor of print and digital media for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She blogs at www.UnRetiring.blogspot.com.


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