The Washington Post

Elders, oldsters and old-timers: What’s your preferred term for ‘senior citizen’?

Oscar Wilde: “Wisdom comes with winters.”

What also comes: social security, glaucoma and irritating monikers for the oldest among us.

Some terms are prima facie objectionable. “Ancient.” “Fogey.” “Blue hair.”

Others seem fussy or vague. “Pensioner.” “Patriarch.” “Doyenne.”

Journalists and policymakers — and regular folks — need a way to refer to those entering, ahem, their sunset years.

We know we tread on dangerous ground.

The Washington Post style manual: “When age is relevant to a story it may be discussed, but beware of adjectives such as elderly, middle-aged, etc. Young reporters especially tend to use these words about people who would not appreciate them.”

But what do you rusty, moth-eaten, antediluvian geezers want to be called?

Ina Jaffe, who covers golden-agers for NPR, filed a story on Tuesday that attempted to get to the bottom of this sensitive matter.

Her conclusion, after NPR conducted a poll of 2,700 presumably aged listeners: “I can sum up the overall response by saying that they disliked pretty much everything.”

Most — 43 percent — liked “older adult.” Simple, straightforward and by far the most popular, according to NPR.

Almost a third liked “elder.” And almost a third liked “senior” — but only 12 percent liked “senior citizen.”

Then there were the loathed terms. Jaffe:

There were some terms you might expect to get a negative response like “geezer,” “old-timer,” the aforementioned “elderly.” But even expressions often used in a positive context like “positive aging” or “successful aging” — a majority of gave them thumbs down. A couple of other common terms — “golden years” and “geriatric” — the vast majority disapproved.

The problem Jaffe identified on her beat: Many of the words we use for older adults — vague terms such as “retirees” — no longer reflect reality. Many don’t retire at 65. If Hillary Clinton becomes president in 2016, she’ll be 69 when she’s inaugurated. And life expectancy in the United States is 78.7 years.

In other words, old folks ain’t what they used to be.

For those Methuselahs who don’t like “elder,” here are some other options — good and bad — culled from the Internet. Browse away — while you still can.











septugenarian, octogenarian, nonagenarian, centenarian

the aged

the old

grandfather, grandmother


old chap

codger, old codger

old dog

old duffer


Father Time

Justin Wm. Moyer is a reporter for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter: @justinwmmoyer.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
How to make Sean Brock's 'Heritage' cornbread
New limbs for Pakistani soldiers
The signature dish of Charleston, S.C.
Play Videos
Why seasonal allergies make you miserable
John Lewis, 'Marv the Barb' and the politics of barber shops
What you need to know about filming the police
Play Videos
The Post taste tests Pizza Hut's new hot dog pizza
5 tips for using your thermostat
Michael Bolton's cinematic serenade to Detroit
Play Videos
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
The signature drink of New Orleans
Next Story
Lindsey Bever · July 9, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.