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Times Have Changed; What Should We Call 'Old People' ?


If you know someone who actually saw Elvis Presley on "The Ed Sullivan Show," chances are they're 65 or more. What do you call them, seniors? That's so high school. Old - sounds a little rude. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports about people over 65 all the time. She's been covering the beat for years and still doesn't know what to call them. Ina joins us periodically for conversations we call 1 in 5 for the one-fifth of Americans who will be 65 or older by 2030. She joins us now from NPR West. Ina, thanks so much for being with us.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Hi, Scott, good to be with you.

SIMON: So what's wrong with someone being called old?

JAFFE: Well, people associate it with bad stuff - bad health, bad appearance, dependency, disability, irrelevance.

SIMON: Yeah.

JAFFE: You know, the idea of aging being a bad thing is so ingrained in our culture even the experts are feeling it. I was talking to a woman named Laura Carstensen. She's the head of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and she had this encounter with her little granddaughter.

LAURA CARSTENSEN: When I told her I was an old lady, she said, no you're not, and this was when she was about 5 years old. And I was really struck at how even at that young age she had to kind of comfort me and tell me that I wasn't really old. And it makes one think about how it's such a negative thing and even little children seem to know that being old means somehow being degraded.

JAFFE: And, Scott, the cliches about aging - the thing is, they just don't relate to the way many people over 65 are living their lives these days. They're working. They're traveling. They're volunteering. They spend a lot of money. According to an AARP study, baby boomers - though they're not all over 65 yet - account for nearly half of all consumer spending. The thing is, since the early 20th century, we've added at least 30 years to the average life expectancy, and the language just hasn't caught up with that.

SIMON: So is there a term at the moment that might be both accurate and polite?

JAFFE: Well, senior's still in use, though don't say senior citizen because the seniors find it patronizing. And one of the ways I know this is that we put a poll on the NPR website a couple of years ago asking people to weigh in on the terms for aging that they loved or hated. This gives you an idea of how long I've been struggling with this. Anyway, the bottom line is that nobody liked anything much. Older adults was the winner and it's the term you hear used most frequently. It's considered politically correct, but in a way I don't think it says very much. I mean, older than what? Seniors was tolerable; likewise for elders. Everything else - golden years, silvered tsunami, geriatrics - all of that, forget about it.

SIMON: So is the problem actual or lexical?

JAFFE: There's some people who think that, you know, we don't really need another term. One person I spoke to who says that is Ken Dychtwald. He's the founder of an organization called Agewave, which does polling and market research related to people over 50. But this issue has stumped him.

KEN DYCHTWALD: I know that senior is on its way out, and I'm not sure that there's any other word or phrase that I've thought of or anyone's thought of that's on its way in. I think just people want to be thought of as who they are, you know, Ina or Ken or Bill or Mom or Dad or Grandpa. I don't necessarily think we've got to brand some kind of special patronizing title for somebody just because they're - they've reached a certain birthday.

JAFFE: And Stanford's Laura Carstensen, who we heard from a minute ago, thinks the lack of a term that embodies how older people live their lives now makes them subject to a lot of mixed messages.

CARSTENSEN: Say, in the workplace, if you reach a certain age, you're getting a message that you really should get out of the way, make room for younger people, and at the same, getting messages that you're a burden on society if you do. Having some social norms and expectations about different stages in life is really very useful. And so I think older people today are like pioneers of a new life stage trying to find their way.

SIMON: So in all of your reporting, have you come across a new phrase?

JAFFE: Well, there's a term that I found - wouldn't you know - on Twitter. Recently, someone I follow tweeted that she was buying tickets to a show in London, and instead of senior discount, they used the term super adult.

SIMON: What - 'cause if - if you get to the age of 65, you've probably done something that qualifies.

JAFFE: Absolutely. You've got it exactly, Scott. But I just want to warn you against Googling super adult because you will come up with a lot of entries for incontinence products and porn.

SIMON: (Laughter) What do you mean warn me? NPR's Ina Jaffe, thanks so much.

JAFFE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.