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Language about Aging

Designations For Older Adults

The appropriate designation for people who are older has been a debatable issue. A 1979 Harris Poll conducted for the National Council on the Aging provided a list of ten terms (aged person, elderly person, golden ager, mature American, middle-aged person, old man/old woman, old timer, older American, retired person, senior citizen) to determine their acceptability among older adults—defined as people over the age of sixty-five. The results of this survey indicated that the most liked terms were senior citizen, retired person, and mature American.

In an empirical study of the naming preferences of three separate age groups (17–44, 45– 64, and 65 and older), Carole A. Barbato and Jerry D. Feezel examined the reactions of members of each group to the following lexical terms for older adults: mature American, retired person, senior citizen, golden ager, old timer, elderly, aged person, old folks, biddy, and fogie. The results of this experiment showed that respondents from all three age groups favored mature American, senior citizen, and retired person. The two oldest groups had a favorable reaction to senior citizen and mature American. The youngest group of respondents liked elder, but only one positive response for this term occurred in the other two age groups. The other three preferred terms, in order of preference, were retired person, golden ager, and elderly.

In their discussion of the results of this study, published in the Gerontologist, Barbato and Feezel note that Frank Nuessel (1982) viewed the term elderly as neutral and nonstereotypic. They point out that this term ranked among the lowest in their study. Nevertheless, in their own examination of the 1984 and 1985 issues of the Gerontologist, elderly was found to be the most frequently used expression. Barbato and Feezel (p. 531) further note that, two years later, Nuessel (1984) believed that elder was a more neutral term. In a response to the Barbato and Feezel article, Nuessel (1987) argues that the imposition of a term on older adults may not be the best approach to this terminological issue. Since naming is a question of self-definition, a group-determined appellation may ultimately be the best solution.

Times, like language, change, and the editors of this volume have avoided the terms the aged and the elderly. In place of the latter, the expressions older adults or elderly persons have been used. This change in preference for terms to refer to older adults is reflected elsewhere, such as in the Thesaurus of Aging Terminology (Diliberti and Eccles, p. 43), where, under the entry "elderly," the reader is advised to use the expression older adults. Under the entry "older adult," the editors state that this phrase has been "assigned routinely to all documents focusing on persons aged 60 and older." Clearly older adult has become the preferred professional term.

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