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Does the term ‘senior’ bother you? How about ‘elderly’?

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Does the term “senior” bother you? At times, businesses and individuals need to use a descriptor for the age range of, well, those who are not so young anymore.

What term is chosen depends upon many factors, especially context.

Ann Cunningham, executive director at Oasis in Rochester, said that she read about a woman in her 50s running a marathon described as “elderly” — an obvious misuse. Cunningham tends to disdain the term “elderly” since it makes people sound frail.

Her organization provides people 50 and older with peer-oriented enrichment classes, social opportunities and activities.

“I don’t tend to refer to them as ‘seniors,’ but as ‘mature adults’ and ‘older adults,’” she said in referencing the population that comes out to Oasis. “I say ‘senior adults’ sometimes because I work with the high school population too. ‘Retired adults’ also works.”

Terms that sound patronizing are also taboo.

“‘The golden years aren’t golden.’ my mother used to say,” Cunningham said. “I don’t really like cute names.”

Helen Newman, 69, is also not a fan of cutesy names for her age bracket. Newman coordinates the TechAge Adult Learning Center, a program of the Louis S. Wolk Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester. She also teaches a few classes on technology.

“Clever names are not so catchy,” she said. “We don’t like the term ‘senior.’ I use ‘older adult’ or ‘mature adult’ or ‘wiser adult.’ I hate the term ‘elderly.’”

For some, “senior” seems to teeter on the edge of slur when used inappropriately, such as when a young person forgets something and calls it a “senior moment.” There’s also the connotation of the “senior discount” as something cheapskates use, even though there’s nothing wrong with asking for a discount to which one is entitled.

Newman doesn’t like when people call older, unrelated people “grandma” or “grandma” as an insult.

“They’re just assuming if you’re older, you’re a grandparent,” Newman said.

She said that she became a step-grandmother in her 30s, an age far from typical grandparent age.

Newman believes that some of the marginalizing names indicate the societal underestimation of the older population.

“They have a lot to offer, and are very smart and can do a lot of things,” Newman said. “The people who come to JCC have a lot of interests. One man taking a class here is a master gardener, for example.”

As a certified financial planner, Adam M. Mark at Wealth Management Group, LLC in Rochester helps a lot of clients who are nearing retirement. Since much of their conversation tends to focus on that stage in life, he uses “retiree” most of all.

“I talk about ‘financial independence’ a lot,” Mark said. “We don’t ask clients how old they are but how young they are.”

Also a certified financial planner, Elizabeth A. Thorley, president of Thorley Wealth Management in Pittsford, doesn’t use “senior” either.

“The one I use most often is ‘mature,’” she said.

At Rochester Public Library, Brian DiNitto leads computer classes. One category of classes the library hosts is for “senior patrons.”

“I haven’t heard anything about this being offensive,” DiNitto said. “It’s a tag we put on classes so we don’t get too many teens, although we do get some home schooled students and their parents will be there with them.”

Perhaps they took the term “senior” literally? When considering the academic sense of the word, “senior” means someone who has learned a lot and is at the top of the pecking order ahead of juniors, sophomores and freshmen. Maybe those who aren’t offended by “senior” simply view it differently.

Despite this, Mary Rose McBride, vice president of marketing and communications for Lifespan of Greater Rochester, said her organization never uses “seniors” and usually “older adults” or sometimes “elders,” depending upon context.

“Retirement and longer life means life is lived differently than it used to be,” she said.

Terms like “golden age” sounds like one is riding off into the sunset, she believes.

McBride said that the very oldest baby boomers don’t mind “senior” as they tend to think of it in the academic sense.

“We try to be respectful and not group people,” McBride said. “Using ‘older adults’ does group them, but we be respectful of where people are in life.”

As with any age, assuming a universal truth about any age group disrespects members of the group.