Old, Elder, Older… What are you?

You are old, Father William,” the young man said
And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?” —Lewis Carroll

Elder, older, older adult, senior citizen, golden-ager, retiree – what do we want to be called now that we’ve reached “a certain age?” Whatever term you use, it’s guaranteed to offend at least some people on the older side of 60.

According to Wikipedia, terms and euphemisms for old people include “old people”(worldwide usage), “seniors” (American usage), “senior citizens” (British and American usage), “older adults” (in the social sciences), “the elderly” and “elders” (in many cultures including the cultures of aboriginal people).

“Elderly is a slap in the face, elder not so bad,” says Dawn, a Facebook friend who objects to “old” because of age discrimination. Or at least that’s what she claims.


 “Old,” “elder” … “geezer”?

Hardly anyone admits to actually being “old.” A Pew Research Center study of 2,929 Americans age 18 plus found that respondents under 30 said old age begins at 60, but respondents 65 plus said 74. One 90-year-old woman didn’t think old started until you were 95.

Elder may be the lastest PC term for old, but personally I think if you want to use it, you should be an Aboriginal tribesperson – otherwise it sounds pretentious.

I kind of like “crone.” You might get slapped if you call an old woman a “crone,” but I think this term should be rehabilitated. Like “elder,” it was once a term of respect.

Then there are all the jokey names: oldster, geezer, biddy, fogey – even alta cocker, because Yiddish can be counted on to have the most colorful slang. These rather old-fashioned terms have fallen out of favor in an era where youth can be counted on to use cruder slang, like “old fart.” If I had to pick one it would be geezer. I’m proud to be a geezer geek, in fact.


How bad is “senior”?

In this country, “older person” or “older adult” are currently the most politically correct terms. I prefer “senior,” with or without citizen attached; any word that is so often paired with “discount” can’t be all bad. And it’s a euphemism I can live with because it sounds at least a little dignified.

Lots of people don’t like being called seniors, but at this point they’d better learn to live with it. We’re unlikely to see “elder discounts” anytime soon.

Despite my lack of fondness for the word “old,” I do call myself a “little old lady” occasionally because “old” is modified by “little” and “lady.” I am not a “cute” little old lady, however. The tendency to call extremely old people “cute” is rather sickening.

Some people would rather call a spade a spade. “It’s is just a fact,” my friend Belinda, a cookbook author, says. “Elder, senior, oldster… all these things seem annoying and patronizing to me. I know old is not PC and elder-senior-etc. are considered polite. But I think I’ve earned “old.”


How About “Oldie”? 

The founder of the British print magazine Oldie says his aim was to produce “an antidote to youth culture but, more important, a magazine with emphasis on good writing, humour and quality illustration.” Can you imagine an American magazine for old people calling itself “Oldie” – let alone featuring great writing, graphic art and a regular column named “Still With Us,” which catches up with people you might have thought were dead. We’re stuck with one that features health tips and older celebrities who still look 35.

Could this fear of the label “old” be an American phenomenon – our way of talking around the real issue? Randi, one of my wise, if not yet elder friends, thinks so: “People who are over 60 are closer to losing their hearing and eyesight, closer to cancer, heart attacks – closer to death in fact. Isn’t that why we really have such a hard time saying ‘senior’ and no trouble saying ‘teenager?’

“If it isn’t, then why do we have such a hard time coming up with the right word?”


Well? What do you think? I’m ready for your comments!

(But first, take our poll!)


28 responses to “Old, Elder, Older… What are you?

  1. At Elephant Bar restaurant, they have removed “senior discounts”, calling it “life experienced” STUPID! What snowflake youngster decided referring to an older person as “senior” is bad? THEY must think us old folks are bad!!! “Senior” used to be a respectful term, for valued old people. And “elder” (which I prefer) used to be even more honorable. Trying to be politically correct is (usually) just stupid, and the object of the “correctness” often don’t like it, like ME, and the American Indians who were asked if they liked that the Redskins team changed their name.

  2. How about “survivor”. The “survivors” have outlived every generation that can before us and this term can be used for the next 20,30. 40,even 50 years by us. Forget all the terms that indicate negativity and have an end point.

  3. I personally think labelling anyone because of age is wrong. Regardless of age we are people first and we are adults. Referring to anyone as old (or young) is basically putting people into categories like you would a library book. It seems to me that it then becomes like we are put in a group or class of people distinctly different from just being an adult and then it also becomes easy to become stereotyped and viewed as if those stereotypes are true for all of us even though we are all different.

  4. I like Elder, or Older Adult. I’m not there yet (50) but I hate “senior citizen”. Also I hate it when you hear “an 88 year old young lady” 88 (or or 68 nor 58) is not a ” young lady”. Very condescending. Boomer won’t work for me as I am Gen X. My mother calls herself a “Boomer” but she is not; she was born in 1939. And don’t call me “honey” “sweetie” or “dear” unless you are a family member.
    Right now, I cannot call myself ” middle aged” as I don’t expect to live till 100. Older lady works fine.

    1. Elder is right. if the aboriginal can do it. the eastern cultures would never consider demeaning their elders. They are venerated but not in this society. Crude greeting cars with body parts hanging out. Imagine if it were another subgroup what they would do. Switch black or gay or young or Jewish in place of any of the hokes and they would go crazy with indignation. This attitude keeps the elders of this society not revered for their wisdom but thrown away invisible

  5. Every year we do a funny show about what happens as we age– we’re working on a skit about what we like to be called. Recently a friend sent me an interesting one–Seinager (senior teenager) we have everything now we wanted as a teenager- our own pad,get. Up when we want to, get an allowance, go to bed as we please etc…

  6. I started asking for a “Geezer discount” when I was in my late 50s, since in California a senior can be anywhere from 55 on up, depending on the store. It always caused a laugh, and seemed less pathetic than asking for a senior discount. Usually, the clerk would protest, saying I must be wrong, that I didn’t look old enough. It put us both at ease, having a little conspiratorial chuckle together. I’m now turning 68, and continue using my favorite term…even though some days it feels like getting older and more crippled is nothing to laugh about…but I keep on trying!

      1. “Geezer” refers specifically to an old man (in particular, an old-fashioned, out-of-step one). And no one I know has ever used it, with the exception of my dad.

  7. My great niece and nephew sometimes tell me I am a cute little old lady…it’s fine when they call me that, but if you did it…I would hit you. I refer to myself as old….and really, I earned it.

  8. This is a great subject. I don’t care for “senior” much because it reminds me of high school (shudder). I like Elder because it’s elegant and sorta Spanish (“El Der!”) Can’t wait to see what “Others” submitted.

  9. We call the older generation in our family “Golden Oldies,” and I like the respect it implies. My other favorite is older adult. I am a baby boomer and while I will probably always call myself that, I don’t think the younger generations will use that term for us as we age. Thanks for trying to come up with a better alternative than senior citizen. I dislike that one, and also being called “Ma’am!”

  10. Okay, we need to see what those “other” terms are that 44.44 percent prefer! I personally go with “boomer,” because it defines an age range that everybody understands … and it will be accurate no matter how old I get!

      1. An interesting comment about “boomers”. I never thought of it as anything but a term for those of us born after WWII.. But then I’m white and middle class…

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