CHICAGO -- What's in a name? A problem.
The North Shore Senior Center is the place to go for people over 50 -- a modern facility with an atrium and cafeteria, a well-equipped gym for the fit, classrooms for the curious and art studios for the creative.
But this well-established institution is having something of an identity crisis: Should it change its name?
The problem is "senior." The word is laden with stereotypes. It conjures up dentures and discounts, decline and dysfunction.
"Most people 50 to 80 don't want to be referred to as senior," says Millard J. Grauer, vice chairman of the center's board. " 'Senior' is a turnoff. The word stops people from coming."
The battle over language is a major part of the culture wars of aging. With longevity and health gains, traditional old age has been postponed. Most men and women in this age range don't fit the definition of old. Yet they have largely completed the adult tasks of filling out a résumé and raising a family. As they look ahead to several decades of continued vitality, many would benefit from institutions that could guide them in this next stage of life.
The North Shore center has responded with education and fitness programs for the swelling ranks of the "young old." The center has no age limit on participating in its activities and encourages intergenerational projects.
Earlier this year the center conducted a series of focus groups of men and women over 50. Results showed that the participants were enthusiastic about the concept of "life options" and programs to support new careers and activities. But they balked at the term "senior." As one person said: "I'm turning 60 this year, and I don't think I will be a senior for a long time." Another said: " 'Senior' definitely means older than me."
But the word "senior" speaks to the center's role in the community and its solid reputation with funding agencies. What's more, its traditional mission is to provide services to older people in need. Next to the building with classrooms for lifelong learning is a day care facility for patients with Alzheimer's.
Like many institutions aimed at older Americans, the center is struggling with a dual challenge: to serve the minority who are frail while trying to engage the majority who are not.
This shift in aging requires a new vocabulary. But what is a senior center by a different name? The North Shore Adult Center? The North Shore Life Center? Or simply the North Shore Center, or just the initials NSSC?
Another approach is Mather's More Than a Café -- a kind of neighborhood Starbucks where breakfast is served all day and computers are available for free. An omelet with hash browns costs $4.29, and the manager will help you if you get stuck online. The walls are painted in hot colors -- orange, yellow, green. There's a bulletin board for community news. Every day, the tables fill up with regulars. Nowhere will you see these words: Aging. Senior. Older adult. The only "golden" refers to the French fries.
Yet More Than a Café is a storefront senior center, managed by a private, nonprofit aging agency. The organization has come a long way since it was founded 50 years ago as "Mather's Home for Aged Ladies." Now called "Mather Lifeways," it provides programs and services to older adults.
Its network of four neighborhood cafés is a new venture. The cafés are like outreach centers of preventive medicine to maintain physical and mental health. People come to the café to stimulate new interests, learn skills, search for jobs, get legal and financial advice, find a plumber and make friends. All over a free cup of coffee.
Jo Ossler works at the café. She's lived on the Northwest side of Chicago all her life. She has four children, eight grandchildren. She had two marriages and worked for a stationery company for 31 years. "I'm not ready to retire," she says. "I have my friends here. I get excited when a new person comes in." Or as Rosalie Deeds puts it: "I'm 85. There are so many things I want to do."
They wouldn't go to a senior center. But they like to hang out in the café.
Can the word "senior" be saved? Would people buy into a publicity campaign to turn it into a positive S-word that signifies sexy, savvy, superior?
If not, "senior" has probably had its moment. •
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