Searching for Words to Define Us

Wherein a “senior" word nerd looks for positive verbal descriptions for the grey of head but young of heart

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, when I was a mere stripling of 54, I met a woman I hadn’t seen in two years at a dog run. I mentioned obliquely that I was in a relationship, and in some context referred to “my partner.” “You’re gay!” she cried, as several onlookers and two Dobermans eyed me malevolently. When I explained to her that the aforementioned partner was indeed a lady, she instructed me, “Howard, only gays have partners. She’s your girlfriend.”

While I was aware that the term partner was widely used in the gay community, as a member of the half-century club I had a difficult time referring to someone more or less of my vintage as my girlfriend. It was too sophomoric-sounding. So, although the English language has innumerable ways of expressing many things, it lacked even one suitable word to describe those in a “mature” relationship.

Other languages have paid more attention to this nomenclature dilemma. For example, in German, lebenspartner means life partner; and if you have adequate breath, you may jocularly refer to your beloved as lebensabschnittspartner (lap, for short) which adds abschnitts, meaning sections or portions; so, a life sections partner, or a partner for a part of but not one’s entire life.

Interestingly, the French language as spoken in Québec which at times has been averse to anglicisms has solved this nomenclature conundrum somewhat by the importation of an English word. The term chum has been in circulation in Québécois French for many decades to refer to one’s love interest. However, there is no indication that a corollary English term for this designation is likely to emerge, and I have given up hope of one surfacing.

Having succumbed to using the term partner, fast forward fifteen years: now that I'm 69 I have shifted my word obsession and am looking for a definitive term to describe those, like myself and my partner, who are over 65 but not elderly. I don’t want to be designated as elderly or as a senior citizen. The former term connotes to me someone whose physical health necessitates extensive care, and the latter term suggests a retired person who lives on a pension in a seniors’ home and is largely sedentary.

While previously these terms may have suited someone over 65, times have changed. Our increased life expectancy is staggering, and it has been estimated that by the year 2030 it will exceed 85 in many countries. Research shows that reaching the age of 65 does not, for most people, mark a decline in performance, perhaps due to better health care. Also, statistics show that those over 65 contribute approximately 20 per cent of consumer spending, and within two decades this amount is expected to increase 25 per cent. And whereas in 2000 only 12.8 per cent of people over 65 were in the workforce, by 2016 this figure had climbed to 18.8 per cent.

Research suggests that the public largely associates the aging process with decline and deterioration. A case in point is a recent study conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons, in which a group of millennials were asked to name the age they considered to be “old”; this averaged out to be 59. They then introduced the same group to some people 60 years and older. A video shows how the millennials changed their perception after interacting with vibrant members of the older generation and in the process relinquished their outdated beliefs that aging always involves perceptible decline.

Given the case to be made for those over sixty being more active than were their counterparts in previous generations, I believe we must find a more dynamic term for folks over 65 other than elderly or senior.

Here are some candidates:

a) boomers;

b) geriactives;

c) honoured elders;

d) nightcappers;

e) silvers;

f) sunsetters;

g) the wise.

An alternative is to create an acronym to describe the group, and here are some options:

a) nyppies (not yet past it);

b) owls (older, working less; or, older,
wiser, learning);

c) hopskis (healthy old people spending kids’ inheritance).

What we call an age group might seem unimportant, but the words we use to name groups of people can affect attitudes toward those groups. Hence, some job titles have been replaced in recent decades, including stewardess by flight attendant, secretary by assistant, and pest controller by extermination engineer, all of which seek to sound more gender-neutral or impressive.

So given the rising importance of the over-65s and the lack of an accepted contemporary term to describe them, please feel welcome to send your preferred word(s) to the address below. I look forward to receiving ideas on how to solve my current word conundrum.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit. Reach him at hrichler@gmail.