We need some new vocabulary to accurately describe today’s ‘senior’

The current definition dates from the 1930s and doesn’t accurately reflect a generation over 65

Jan 09, 2020 by Helen Hirsh Special to The Hamilton Spectator

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the significance of how language has framed our views about aging. It occurred to me that much of the problem has to do with the lack of vocabulary to describe the various stages of life following teenagehood.

Granted, reference is made to “young adults” and being in one’s “prime,” but then our vocabulary falters at “middle age.” Even fewer terms exist to differentiate any age after 65. Unfortunately, the word “senior” has become synonymous with being frail, vulnerable, declining mental capacity and limited ability to learn.

We have multiple terms to describe the various stages of childhood. The words “infant,” “newborn,” “toddler,” “preteen” and so on represent the many distinct phases of early life. Each is unique.

No such distinctions are made for people past middle age. Generally speaking, we fail to recognize the extended lifespan that generations can expect today and the multiple contributions that older adults offer both socially and economically. By categorizing all seniors in one group, their many differences and life phases are not acknowledged.

This wouldn’t be the first time new vocabulary was introduced to differentiate between stages of life. For instance, the word “teenager” didn’t exist until the 20th century. Interestingly, it is the automobile that had the greatest impact on the evolution of this word, giving rise to school buses and the creation of high schools.

This fact, along with the behaviour exhibited by so many children congregated together, led to the need for a more accurate word to adequately describe the stage between childhood and adulthood. Once the word was adopted, society gained a nuanced understanding of what it meant to be a teenager and a new consumer group was created for marketing purposes.

Unfortunately, the same is not true for what it means to be a “senior,” an age reference established in the 1930s when the average lifespan was 62.

Today, age 65 is an arbitrary number. We have people working decades longer and enjoying better health. We need to identify more clearly how varied this time span can be for those people in terms of their experience. Surveys and polls rarely differentiate past age 65. This contributes to enormous misunderstandings and judgments about the capacity of older people.

This new decade will see an undeniable shift in demographics to “older.” To do this new reality justice, we need to develop an appropriate and nuanced language that reframes the conversation about aging.

Imagine if we had words that could more accurately describe the creative knowledge of someone in their sixties; the rediscovery process that takes place in our seventies; or the more contented wisdom of our eighties and nineties.

There are worlds of meaning in words. It’s past time we discovered words that more accurately reflect the behaviours — and benefits — of age.

Helen Hirsh Spence is founder and CEO of the Top Sixty Over Sixty (T60 Strategies), a social enterprise that offers thought leadership, consulting and training on age inclusion.