Bill Maxwell: The new fighting word: old

  • Posted: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 11:38 p.m.

When I turned 62 (several years ago), I became eligible for the lifetime National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, or “Senior Pass.” I got it immediately, and I have never taken it out of my wallet.

Each time I use the card, as I did at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah a few days ago, I see the word “senior” and I am reminded yet again that I am an older person subject to the prejudice, slights and insults of ageism.


A younger acquaintance jokingly referred to my pass as “a geezer freebie.” I let him off the hook, telling him that I call the $10 card my “old-goat ticket to nature’s paradise.”

Ironically, in addition to being a victim of ageism, I write for a major U.S. newspaper and must be keenly aware of the appropriateness of the language I use to describe people 50 and older. Otherwise, I could become a perpetrator of ageism.

We journalists and others in media, especially those in public relations, find help in our companies’ stylebooks and other documents. The stylebook of the Tampa Bay Times, for example, advises writers to use “elderly” sparingly: “It is not appropriate in describing anyone younger than 80. In most cases, it is better to simply give the person’s age than to characterize it.”

In many other areas of American society, however, such careful use does not apply, and efforts to avoid offending people 50 and older virtually disappear. For this reason, organizations such as AARP, the International Longevity Center and the Aging Services of California are fighting an uphill battle, at least to me, in trying to get marketing, entertainment and medical companies to become more sensitive to how they treat people 50 and older.

Words that label groups of people have staying power, and those used to address and describe people of retirement age too often have negative associations. A recent survey conducted by SeniorMarketing.com analyzed the responses of 1,114 people to the terms and phrases used to describe those 50 and older.

“Our survey results clearly show how certain words, acceptable a generation ago, have rapidly become taboo,” Kevin Williams, president of the online firm, told the Chicago Tribune. “’Nursing home,’ for example, calls up all kinds of unpleasant ideas. Ninety-four percent of respondents said that ‘nursing home’ had the worst association in their mind out of all choices presented. Perhaps most surprisingly, 44.2 percent agreed that the terms ‘senior living’ and ‘retirement community’ are outdated. With that being said, ‘retirement community’ only had a 13 percent negative association versus ‘retirement home,’ which had a 48 percent negative association.”

Williams cautioned that many seemingly innocuous terms, such as “facility,” border on being dehumanizing. Why? They evoke images of institutionalization.

“Knowing the preferred terms when talking about particular groups of people is important from both a human and marketing perspective,” he said. “The wrong word or phrase can alienate your target audience overnight. The world of politics is rife with these avoidable blunders. Businesspeople would do well to learn from such mistakes and set a better example.”

Other terms that are euphemistic and well-intentioned actually are patronizing: “aging gracefully,” “active adult,” “golden-ager,” “pensioner,” “80 years young,” “mature person,” “spry” and “feisty.”

The hardworking retired men — in their 70s — with whom I am a volunteer at a county park dislike being called “elderly.” One said that while “elderly” sounds benign, it carries the sense of being frail.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that abhors aging, and too many of us do not watch the words we use to address and describe people of retirement age. A memorable scene in the 1970s sitcom “Sanford and Son” nicely illustrates the point.

Fred and Aunt Esther are arguing when Fred threatens to go upside Esther’s head.

Esther: “I’d like to see you try it, you old beady-eyed, fish-eating, bear-hugging, grizzled old buzzard.”

Fred: “Who you calling old?”

The truly derogatory words do not bother Fred one bit. Just do not call him “old.” Esther knows how to get to him.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. Email: bmaxwell@tampabay.com.

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