Our ambivalence about aging is evident in the words we use. Even the word aging itself a gerund that long ago replaced the word aged reveals our discomfort. We're more comfortable with the process than the arrival. And even that frightens us, so we struggle to find words that won't offend: Senior. Senior citizen. Oldster.
We also search for a way to categorize a demographic that now can span 40 years or more.
"Even a decade ago, one was able to get away with grouping all older people together," notes Utah gerontologist Scott Wright. But with people living longer, and the oldest baby boomers already getting Social Security checks but still wearing designer jeans, that simple category no longer works. "We need a whole new vocabulary," says Wright.
Sociologists talk about the near-old, the young-old, the old-old, and triple-digitarians. The difference between the young-old and the old-old is less about age and more about medical conditions that render a person frail. "Chronological numbers are just meaningless any more," says Wright. But it's hard to call a healthy 90-year-old young-old.
News stories, some of them written by people in their 20s, sometimes refer to anyone over 60 as elderly. And even that sounds tentative, a soft adjective masquerading as a noun.
"We need a word for the neediness of the old-old, a word with less negative connotations than dependency, a word that connotes wisdom, connection and dignity," argues Mary Pipher in her book "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders."
"Boomers may be increasingly unfriendly" to the term senior as they themselves age, notes Age Beat, a newsletter of the Journalists Exchange on Aging. The top choice of reporters, it says, is "the more neutral and flexible general term" older as in older adults. By no means old, just older.