What should you call someone who’s over 65?
You’ve probably learned a lot about how to be “politically correct” when it comes to speaking to or about people of various ethnic groups. If you’re a man, might know how not to address women, especially in certain contexts. But how much thought have you given to how you speak to older people of either sex?
I recently attended a dinner/dance featuring music from The Forties, or The Big Band Era. Most of the people there were 70 or older. One couple in their 90s was singled out for how many years they’ve attended this event and how “spry” they still are on the dance floor. I hope I can still dance when I’m in my 90s, but I hope no one refers to me as “spry.” The Bing Dictionary defines “spry” as “agile and energetic: markedly brisk and active, especially at an advanced age.” It’s the implication of “advanced age” that will bother me. I already know that I won’t feel inside like I’m at an “advanced age,” and I won’t want people to refer to me that way.
At this same event, I heard many of the servers call women and men “young lady” or “young man.” I’ve been called that myself, and I don’t like it! Okay, I’ll admit it! I like to think of myself as a young-looking 69-year old. But I don’t take it as a compliment to be called “young lady.” Is it possible that the clerk or waiter means it as one? I doubt it. I know I don’t look young to them. I feel like they’ve categorized me as belonging to a subset of society that’s returning to a child-like state. It seems they’re not quite sure how to address me. A simple Ma’am or Miss will do, or even my name if they just read it on my credit card.
When I’m with my 94-year-old father, it’s so nice to have someone refer to him as “Sir” or by his name, Lynn. I know he struggles with feeling like he’s losing his identity and becoming more and more invisible in society. I’ve seen him beam when the people at his gerontologist’s office or elsewhere call him Lynn or even better for his generation, Mr. Sorensen.
I’ve heard older people called “honey,” “dear,” “gramps,” “sweetheart,” “buddy,” or similar terms that they weren’t called when they were younger. My father-in-law lived to be 90. More than once I had someone say to me, “He’s such a cute little man.” That, too, seemed to me that it implied he was becoming “child-like.” My church hosts a luncheon for “Silver Sisters.” Because I color my hair, I always feel compelled to ask jokingly if I can still come. Personally I would prefer “senior sisters.” But maybe that’s just me. Which brings me to the point, if you don’t know how someone would like to be addressed, you could always ask!
It seems that many people are struggling with how to refer to the growing number of older people in our country. I noticed recently that Sizzler’s restaurants have changed their “Senior Menu” to “Honored Guests.” Maybe their marketing research showed that seniors respond more positively to that designation. As someone who qualifies as an “Honored Guest” it seems a bit “over the top” to me, and I wanted to tell someone on the staff that getting older doesn’t feel like an honor, even though I’m happy to get a discount at a restaurant or at the movies.
When doing some online research about this topic, I found a great article in the Feb. 11, 2009, issue of the New York Times, titled
“Goodbye, Spry Codgers. So Long, Feisty Crones,” by Jane Gross. The article and the 226 comments that follow it are well-worth the click it takes to get there. Written in a humorous style, it includes several other links to help us “through the minefield of politically correct and politically incorrect ways of identifying and portraying the elderly.”
Pat McVicar, assistant director with the local Area Agency on Aging in California, said, “The term ‘elderly’ should be thrown out altogether – the preferred terminology is ‘seniors’ or ‘older adults.’ Even many active older Americans don’t consider themselves ‘seniors’ at all.”
Obviously, the “correct” terminology of “ageism” is an ongoing debate, and we all have different opinions about what feels right and what doesn’t. If you provide care for an “older adult,” or associate with “seniors” on a regular basis, at least give some thought to how you would like to be addressed when you reach “the golden years.” Then apply the same courtesy to others. If we meet, feel free to call me by my first name!
By Marti Lythgoe, Freelance Writer & Editor