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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2002

Good description is tough to find

At your own risk, call the elderly “senior citizens.”

This unimaginative name is the one most commonly tacked onto oldsters as a group. In writing, I have been guilty of it myself, though I never liked the title.

Recently I went through copy I had prepared earlier for publication, and whenever I came upon the phrase “senior citizen,” I deleted the word “citizen,” to make it read “senior,” or “seniors.”

My action followed a report by Aging Today, a news publication. In a survey of 130 journalists who write about the aging population, the publication found that the title “senior citizen,” is by far the most unpopular.

Why the phrase ever was so widely adopted is a mystery. It makes as much sense to call young people “junior citizens,” and it serves no descriptive purpose.

The survey reported that “old folks” also makes most seniors grit their teeth. The term “elderly” likewise was disliked, though less so if used as a modifier rather than as a noun. For example, while “the elderly” draws no cheers, a phrase such as “elderly Americans,” “the elderly rich,” or “elderly disabled” seems to carry less of a stigma.

Most, though not all, in the upper age brackets find anything distasteful that emphasizes age. So it is truly difficult to find unobjectionable and yet descriptive titles.

“Golden agers” is another term seniors in large number have voted down. The use of “golden” in almost any category has been overworked, and many seniors, who know there is nothing golden about growing old, cringe when they hear it.

“Mature adults,” which has a heavy-handed sound, likewise won no applause. “Loved ones.” is another overworked phrase that many seniors would prefer never to hear again. It has a cloying, overly sweet ring and can apply to any age.

Facilities where older persons gather for social affairs now usually are referred to as Senior Centers, though some still toss in the unneeded “Citizen,” and writers keep on calling them Senior Citizen Centers.

Individually, there is no better way to address a senior than by his or her own name. In referring to groups, until a better title comes along, I'll be guided by the survey and refer to this growing body of on-the-goers as seniors.

Millie Benson is a Blade Columnist.

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