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August 21, 2014

Rethinking the Term “Senior Citizen”

Today is National Senior Citizen’s Day, which is a great opportunity to look at the role age and aging play in all of our lives. Many people are familiar with terms like racism or sexism—but here at SAGE we spend a lot of time thinking about ageism. Ageism is the act of stereotyping and forming prejudices about people or groups based on their age. It can take many forms, from assuming that all teenagers are irresponsible to passing over an older adult’s job application because of their age.


One important way that we combat these different ‘-isms’ is to learn how to speak to others with respect and understanding. The language we use in our everyday lives has a tremendous impact, not only on our personal relationships, but on the national conversation around diversity and inclusion. For example, when I’m conduction our LGBT cultural competency trainings, I have all the participants say ‘LGBT’ out loud four of five times. After this activity people that have never even said the word LGBT can say it smoothly and without stumbling over the letters, which is an important way to demonstrate that you’re an ally to the LGBT community!

Given the power of language, today is a great time to explain why SAGE chooses not to use the term “senior citizen” in our work. Calling someone a senior citizen places them into a category simply based on their age. Along with this category come many other assumptions about what older adults can and cannot do.

‘Senior citizen’ is just one of a few terms used to describe older adults that are increasingly rejected. A 2012 article in the New York Timesdiscussed this shift in language, noting that other terms like ‘elderly’ are also falling out of favor.

Whatever the label, anytime you see someone first and foremost as a member of a group, it makes it more difficult to see that person in all of their uniqueness. At SAGE we strive to see everyone as individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses, not just as members of a certain generation. Removing ageist assumptions or language for our collective vocabulary is an important part of doing our work, and that’s why we don’t call our constituents senior citizens.

There may be times when it’s very important to talk about older people as a group, and in those moments we prefer the term ‘older adults’. It allows us to speak to a set of shared experiences, without bringing along a lot of the baggage and stereotypes associated with ‘senior citizens’.

After all, as one style guide points out, we don’t refer to people under age 50 as ‘junior citizens,’ so why create a special category just for older people?

What term do you use to describe yourself? Which terms do you love, and which do you dislike? Let us know in the comments! 

--Posted by Tim Johnston, PhD


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Tim, great topic to blog about! reminds me of a piece i wrote a while back about the terms we use as we age....here's a snippet of that article:

Society certainly has many words to describe our aging folks. There is a plethora of terms that include: the new old age, silver foxes, graying, aging, older, old, saging, senior, elder, elderly, senior citizen, baby boomer, boomers, coming of age, old-old v. young-old, decades of aging, wellderly, and the third age.
If you think about it, only “seniors” are viewed by society as a homogeneous population, even though our age group spans over 50 years. To lump generations together is more reflective of our society’s ageism than of a useful category to address real issues and needs.

“Old” has been reclaimed by Old Lesbians Organizing for Change as an expression of pride that combats aging. “Elder”, for many, signifies great wisdom, experience, and in many societies/cultures our elders are revered. An African proverb says, “The death of an old person is like the loss of a library.” In these words are embedded the important role given to older adults in many African cultures...I think of the Diverse Elders Coalition. The word “sage” can be defined as proceeding from or characterized by wisdom, prudence, and good judgment (ie, sage advice), and of course, is the acronym for “Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders, a leading agency in the field of everything “gay and gray”.

You forget that "senior citizen" was a term invented in the 70s precisely in order to have something other than "old people", without its attached baggage and stereotypes, and to emphasize that seniors were still full members of society. Now you want to get rid of it, but is it really useful to just change terminology? The life cycle of senior citizen shows clearly that a new word without a lot of anti-ageist activism and background changes in those stereotypes doesn't do any good. It might at best make you feel superior to the ignorant/careless people using the old term, but it doesn't actually accomplish anything.

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