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.
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.”
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.