It is hard to know the right words these days when referring to people who were born before about 1950.
“In their golden years,” is hardly a favorite, “elderly” conjures up someone bent over shuffling along in bedroom slippers, “young at heart” seems just a bit patronizing and even “senior” has lost its cache, if it ever had any.
So how do we refer to those over 60? They are no longer considered middle-aged and yet it’s hard to think of the man with a wicked backhand on the tennis court or the woman sitting in the corner office as “old.”
Many people chafe at efforts to become politically correct. They say we (I’m in this nebulous category myself) should get over ourselves and face the reality that we are aging, regardless of how young we feel. And yet, the tendency by too many people is to put everyone who is eligible for Medicare in the same category regardless of what the age group is called.
To do so is a form of ageism. Instead of worrying about what term is appropriate I’d rather focus on educating those who seem determined to attach all sorts of negative images to anyone they consider old.
The recent tragic event in Venice where a 71-year-old woman backing out of her driveway hit and killed her 67-year-old husband is a case in point. The investigating officer was quoted as saying, “Let's be honest, they're senior citizens, she could have panicked.” The comment was insensitive at best and at worst, an inaccurate stereotype. This sort of language does nothing to bring people together or to foster the kind of understanding across ages and cultures that can enrich a community.
A study conducted by the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee and SCOPE (Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence), with funding from the Patterson Foundation, found that older residents are concerned about ageism, about seeming invisible to the rest of the community, about being undervalued. One woman interviewed for the study said, “As I get older some folks treat me as less intelligent because I take more time to make decisions or actions.” Another said, “My most serious problem is trying to make people understand that because I’m 91, I’m not a moron.”
Those interviewed spoke about being judged on the basis of hair color or slowed mobility and considered incompetent if hearing or vision is impaired. They recounted incidents when they had been treated with impatience or indifference by the general public, even professionals with whom they interacted.
And yet, some said that the key is to dignify oneself, to interact across generations and to include people of all ages in the conversation. The best way to overcome negative stereotypes is to seize on opportunities to stay active, both physically and intellectually, to reach out to those who are finding it hard to fit in and to help those in need of friendship.
Changing the conversation could begin by having more of it.
About Kathy Silverberg
Secretary of Senior Friendship Centers' Board of Governors, Kathy is currently a newspaper columnist/ freelance writer, and previously was Southern Region Publisher for the Sarasota Herald Tribune and Editor/General Manager of four New York Times regional newspapers. She serves as liaison between United Way of Charlotte County and the Senior Friendship Centers. She is past chair of the Board of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce, is a board member and past president for United Way of Charlotte County; and, is chair of Charlotte County’s Senior Leadership Council.