On Aging
2:23 am
Mon May 19, 2014

'Silver Tsunami' And Other Terms That Can Irk The Over-65 Set

Originally published on Tue May 20, 2014 6:46 am

About one-fifth of the U.S. population will be 65 or older by the year 2030. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers this population — and says it's often difficult to find the right words to describe it.

"I realized what a minefield this was after I'd been on the beat just a few months," she says. "I did a profile of this 71-year-old midwife. She's still up all night delivering babies, and the headline on our website — and reporters ... do not write the headlines ... described her as 'elderly.'

"Listeners were furious," Jaffe continues. "Maybe once upon a time, 'elderly' referred to a particular stage in life, but now people think ... it means you're ailing and you're frail."

Jaffe sometimes uses "older adults" or "older Americans," she says, if it's relevant to the story. "Sometimes I use the term 'senior' — though I've met some older people who don't like that, either. And 'senior citizen' really seems to annoy just about everyone now. ... There really aren't a lot of widely acceptable terms anymore."

Advertisers can face the same problems.

People over 65 represent several distinct generations, says Ann Arnof Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing. And people in the baby boomer cohort "really don't like to be reminded of the fact they're no longer young," she says. "They feel young. They act young. They enjoy life, and they want to go through it focusing on living."

So, there lies a paradox: Everyone wants to live a long time, but no one wants to actually be old.

Several other terms often used to describe older people can be problematic, like:

Golden years: This term comes from a sales pitch from the late 1950s, Jaffe explains, a time when retirement began to be idealized as this sort of perpetual vacation. It's not clear who coined it — some references cite insurance companies or Merrill Lynch Investments, while others credit Del Webb, the developer of the original retirement community Sun City, which opened in 1960.

Silver tsunami: Ashton Applewhite, who blogs about aging and ageism, really hates the term "silver tsunami," which is increasingly used in news stories about the growing numbers of older people.

"A tsunami is something that strikes without warning and that sucks everything out to sea — as [if] we're supposed to believe old people are going to suck all our resources out with them," Applewhite says. "In fact, the demographic wave that we're looking at is an extremely well-documented phenomenon that is washing gently across a flood plain. It's not crashing on some undefended shore without warning."

Our seniors: "Not just 'seniors' — 'our seniors,' " Jaffe says of this phrase that politicians sometimes use. "The only other group we talk about like that is children," Jaffe says, "and I find it patronizing."

Successful aging: This term is often used by people involved in the field of aging. Although it is typically considered a progressive term, it drives Jaffe "crazy," because, she says, "I think it just means there's one more opportunity for me to fail."

Of course, not everyone shuns these terms. Riff Markowitz, the 75-year-old producer of a musical revue called The Palm Springs Follies, says he prefers that people give it to him straight.

"I just shy away from saying things like 'older,' when really what we all know is it's 'old,' " he says. "They say you're only as old as you feel. Well, you're not as old as you feel. You're as old as you are, and if you feel good then you're as old as you are — and you feel good."

What do you think? What terms for aging do you love — and which do you love to hate? Take the poll below, or suggest some new terms in the comments.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

About one-fifth of the population of the United States will be 65 years old or older by the year 2030. NPR's Ina Jaffe has been covering this silver tsunami of senior citizens as they experience their golden years. It's actually her beat. She chronicles the elderly as they successfully age. And Ina joins us now. Ina, good morning.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: OK. So, I just used these terms for a reason, which is to help start our conversation about the way we talk about aging. And, in fact, you have found that it's difficult to find language to describe the people you cover. Terms like the ones I used just now in the introduction offend many of our listeners, so let's talk about that.

JAFFE: Right, Renee. Actually, I realized what a minefield this was after I had been on the beat just a few months. I did a profile of this 71-year-old midwife. She's still up all night delivering babies. And the headline on our website - and reporters, as you know, do not write the headlines - the headline described her as elderly, and listeners were furious. Maybe once upon a time, elderly referred to a particular stage in life, but now people think of it as it means you're ailing and you're frail.

MONTAGNE: OK. So, what do you, in fact, when you do your stories, what do you call older people?

JAFFE: Older people, or older adults. If it's relevant, sometimes I say older Americans. Sometimes I use the term senior, though I've met some older people who don't like that, either. And senior citizen really seems to annoy just about everyone now. I don't use that term, because there are elder people in this country who aren't citizens. So, there really aren't a lot of widely acceptable terms anymore. I talked to a writer named Ashton Applewhite about this. She's got a blog called This Chair Rocks. And this language issue is something that she thinks about a lot.

ASHTON APPLEWHITE: We're deeply ambivalent about aging. No one wants to die young but everyone is afraid of getting old. And language tends to fall into either this disease, you know, terrifying natural phenomenon, or else be sort of treacley and overly benign or condescending.

MONTAGNE: Ina, where then does some of these euphemisms come from, like senior citizens or golden years?

JAFFE: You know, the earliest references I could find for senior citizen, those are from the late 1930s, and they come up in coverage of the campaign right here in California to create a state-run old-age pension - which failed, by the way. As for golden years, that's really kind of a sales pitch term from the 1950s, maybe the early '60s. That's when retirement began to be idealized as this sort of perpetual vacation. And it's not clear who coined it. I found some references that credit insurance companies or Merrill Lynch Investments. Others give credit to Del Webb, the developer of Sun City, which was the original retirement community.

MONTAGNE: Well, all right. So, senior citizens, golden years, they've now fallen out of favor to a newer generation of people who would fall into those categories. But it does seem like this discomfort with the language of aging generally could create challenges for companies that are marketing to older people now.

JAFFE: Oh, and that is a big market. There's an analysis by the AARP that found that Americans age 50 and older account for almost half of consumer spending. So, I talked to Ann Arnault(ph) Fishman about this, about how to market to this group. And she's president of Generational Targeted Marketing. And she says you can't treat the 50-plus age group as one big demographic blob.

ANN FISHMAN: Because you're talking about three distinct generations, each with its own unique characteristics.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, the largest of these three generations is the baby boom generation.

JAFFE: Oh, right. Ann Fishman says marketers dare not appeal to them as seniors.

FISHMAN: They really don't like to be reminded of the fact that they're no longer young. They feel young. They act young. They enjoy life, and they want to go through it focusing on living.

MONTAGNE: So, Ina, when it comes to some of these terms we've been discussing, which do you think are the worst offenders?

JAFFE: It's a really individual thing. Ashton Applewhite, for example, really hates the term silver tsunami, which is increasingly used in stories about the growing numbers of older people.

APPLEWHITE: You know, a tsunami is something that strikes without warning and that sucks everything out to sea, like as we're supposed to believe old people are, you know, going to suck all our resources out with them. In fact, the demographic wave we're looking at is an extremely well-documented phenomenon that is washing gradually across a flood plain. It's not crashing on some undefended shore without warning.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's very dramatic. Though, Ina, I'm curious: What expressions bug you the most?

JAFFE: There are a couple, Renee. One of them is a term that I hear politicians use a lot: our seniors. Not just seniors - our seniors. The only other group we talk about like that is children, and I find it patronizing. And the other is a term that's used by a lot of people who are involved in the field of aging. It's successful aging. And this is considered by the people who work in the field to be a very progressive term. But it drives me crazy, because I think it just means there's one more opportunity for me to fail.

MONTAGNE: Well, I hope not, Ina. I hope you have a successful aging experience. Thank you very much for joining us.

JAFFE: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Ina Jaffe, who covers aging. And we would actually like to know what you listeners think. What terms for aging do you love, and what terms do you hate? We've got an online poll at npr.org. Or you can suggest some new terms, as a matter of fact, because, of course, if we're going to get rid of these terms, we have to replace them with something better. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.