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Let’s Start Humanizing and Valuing Older People

One way to start: ditch the term 'senior citizen,' an Influencer in Aging says


Part of the Transforming Life as We Age Special Report

(Next Avenue invited all our 2016 Influencers in Aging to write essays about the one thing they would like to change about aging. This is one of the essays.)

Historically, societies have struggled with how to humanely accommodate aging and older people. Solutions have ranged from giving them the most honored positions to completely abandoning them. Throughout, much of the soul-searching has been about their value and role(s).

After centuries, not much has changed. Most societies are continuing to grapple with the “place” of older people. The United States of America is no different from other advanced societies. We are caught between wanting older people to be productive and contributing citizens to providing a comfortable non-work lifestyle.

A Class in Itself

Attempts to bestow dignity upon older people began in the 1930s with the Social Security Act and continued in 1965 with the passing of the Older Americans Act. Older people were singled out as a class of people to be cared for and protected.

In an effort to highlight and enhance the status of older people, numerous identifiers have been applied. One that has persisted is “senior citizen.” The conscience of society has narrowed to envision the senior citizen as someone who is not an equal partner in matters that make for a viable and thriving society.

The 'older person' should be a symbol of strength and a repository of treasured experiences and wisdom.

A greater focus must be on ensuring that older adults have the support to lead viable and productive lives based on their level(s) of functionality. Everything possible must be done to embrace the inclusion of older people in every aspect of life.

Value Older People for Their Gifts

Differences in functional levels are major elements that determine how older people are involved in society. As functionality changes, older people are more likely to become invisible and disposable, even when the older person is the best qualified to perform in particular situations.

As our society ages, it is strategically smart to fully utilize all human assets regardless of age. It is time to consider the full potential of each person throughout the life cycle. Given our life expectancy, it is critical to plan carefully for each stage of life.

No one should grow old being concerned about living with the pending stigma of being a “senior citizen.” Instead of embracing policies that separate ages, allocate more time toward understanding how limited resources can serve multiple age groups. Food, shelter, clothing and health care are essentials for everyone.

Labels and Their Consequences

The moniker “senior citizen” tends to cast a shadow that suggests a “less-than” quality, particularly one of dependence. The “older person” should be a symbol of strength and a repository of treasured experiences and wisdom. We can ill afford to not avail ourselves of all that everyone has to offer throughout their life span.

Labels such as “senior citizen” matter and create unintended barriers. We are a blended society with older people from many cultures and traditions. Older immigrants, recent arrivals and long-term residents are frequently related to in ways that are not compatible with their cultural backgrounds. Being pigeonholed as “senior citizens” is not always understood and can be dehumanizing.

To be an older person simply means that biologically and chronologically, time has passed and changes have occurred. At last, let’s remove the “ senior citizen” cocoon and honor “older people” as full partners, primary architects and protectors of our great society.

 

By E. Percil Stanford
E. Percil Stanford is president, Folding Voice, and professor emeritus, San Diego State University. His work in aging has been integral to the development of the field. He helped create the first university programs, including at San Diego State, where he taught for three decades after earning a Ph.D. in sociology/gerontology. He founded and directed the National Institute on Minority Aging, an annual conference that was held for many years. And he has been involved in the establishment and nurture of other key groups, such as the American Society on Aging and the Gerontological Society of America. After serving as senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at AARP, Stanford co-founded Folding Voice, which consults with businesses on aging and diversity issues. His new book, Diversity: New Approaches to Ethnic Minority Aging, is due out in January.

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