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What's in a Name?

It is a reoccurring topic of conversation among many of the churches I visit and leaders I interact with. What do we call our ministry? And how do we identify the people we want to serve?

I’ve written before on how most baby boomers do not like to be called seniors. And in an effort to continue to search for answers to this question of what to call the new-old, I want to share something from a gerontology textbook.

“A study conducted in the 1980s of the language of aging found that even the terms aged and elderly were considered less than positive (Barabato & Freezel, 1987). This language bias continues more than 30 years later – and it must be remembered that language structures consciousness. We use the words (language) we have to describe ourselves and others, and in doing so, reinforce the meaning of those words.”

The negative connotations of certain words are “…cultural and based on decades-even centuries–of negative beliefs about aging. The core of the problem is that as long as there are negative attitudes about aging, even initially positive terms may develop into negative stereotypes” (Hillier & Barrow, 2011).

Did you catch that?

The authors are saying that the root of the problem is not the term itself, it is the negative attitudes that exist regarding aging. Until we start to see the aging experience as something positive, then ANY term will one day be viewed in a negative light.

If you’ve read this far, I’ve got one more quote to share from Aging, the Individual, and Society, “Currently the term older adult is the most positively perceived label: it reflects adulthood as well as age, in the same way that “middle-aged” does.” Older adulthood describes a developmental season of life and at least so far, doesn’t have the same sting to it that senior adult has.

So, what do you think?

Any suggestions on how to re-shape the negative views of aging that exist? And, any terms that you particularly like for describing people who are in the later years of life?

Barbato, C.A. & Freezel, J. D. (1987). The language of aging in different groups. Gerontologist 27, 527-531.
Hillier, S.M. & Barrow, G. M. (2011). Aging, the individual and society. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth 2011. (p. 44).

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    July 29, 2011 4:22 amPosted 12 years ago
    Sandra Gerhardt

    Don’t know how you’d hone this down to a group name, but the Southeastern Jurisdiction Association of Older Adults’ event name is well liked: Festival of Wisdom and Grace.

    • July 29, 2011 9:00 pmPosted 12 years ago
      Amy Hanson

      Sandra, Wisdom and grace are definitely two things that older adults have to offer. It is why we need to view them as an asset rather than a liability.

      Kim, I’m glad you are telling the stories of people on your blog. I think one of the most powerful ways to break stereotypes is to tell the stories of older adults who are making a Kingdom impact with their lives. Church leaders can do this via blogs, testimonies in weekend services, video interviews, etc. etc.
      Thank you for your blog — I hope some will visit your site.

  • July 29, 2011 4:28 amPosted 12 years ago
    Kim Pagel

    We need positive role models of older adults who are living full, productive and spiritually fruitful lives. I have been writing about some of these people on my blog in the hope of breaking down aging stereotypes. Not sure what name to use. Older adult is a good one.

    • Visit site
      July 29, 2011 6:07 pmPosted 12 years ago
      Stephen Kauffman

      Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, professor emeritus at Temple University, an internationally recognized teacher of the heart who draws from many disciplines and cultures speaks of us moving from “aging to saging.”

      He says “Spiritual eldering carries with it special opportunities; it means acting as guide, mentor, and agent of healing and reconciliation on behalf of the planet, nation, tribe, clan, and family. We become wisdom keepers.

      Can we think of older adults a “wisdomkeepers?” If we can, how does this change the way we perceive old age?

      • July 29, 2011 8:53 pmPosted 12 years ago
        Amy Hanson

        Other cultures have a more positive view of their older adults then we do in America and I think it has to do in part with the fact that their older adults are viewed as wisdom keepers. Thanks, Stephen. Good food for thought.

  • Visit site
    July 29, 2011 7:55 pmPosted 12 years ago
    Max Pyron

    In being a minister to older (sr) adults and a teacher in Sunday School of Baby
    Boomers, I have found out that the name doesn’t really matter to them. Admitting they are ageing is hard for them and just about any name we put on it just reminds them that’s happening. I think the main thing is to recognize where they are in life and try to meet them there. It’s a challenge and wit the help of people like Amy we’ll better meet that challenge

    • July 29, 2011 8:55 pmPosted 12 years ago
      Amy Hanson

      This is a great word, Max. Thank you. We need to meet people where they are at, care about their needs and minister to them. Period.

    • Visit site
      August 24, 2011 12:52 amPosted 12 years ago
      Rev Don Kirsch

      As a Boomer myself (crop of ’47) I don’t mind admitting that I am aging. I mean, if you knew me 20 years ago and saw me today for the first time since then, it would be pretty obvious! Aging is something my granddaughter started when she took her first breath. Point is, I’d rather not be classified as ‘old’. Want to call me something? Call me ‘sir’ or ‘mister’ once in a while. And if you work in a service industry, call me and my wife ‘folks’ or ‘friends’ but don’t call us ‘guys’; it lacks respect.
      We use ‘infant’, ‘toddler’, ‘child’, ‘teen’, ‘young adult’ without giving any thought to ageing. But from there forward we struggle for the word or words to describe where we are in life. Maybe the answer lies in some ‘old’ terms: Adult and Elder. Being an ‘adult’ means growing to become an ‘elder’. That’s something to aspire to!

  • Visit site
    July 30, 2011 1:35 pmPosted 12 years ago
    Robert W Chism

    Third Agers is another term with possible neutual or positive attributes.
    Life expectancy has increased by 30 years in 2000. Recipients’ of this 30 year bonus are Third Agers. The new life course has the following framework with each age having 20-25 years in a given lifespan and
    the particular focus outlined here:

    Preparation: 1st age is a time for growing up

    Achievement: 2nd age is a time of establishment

    Fulfillment: 3rd age is a time of a more caring life

    Completion: 4th age is a time of integration

    Dr William Sadler in his book, The Third Age: Six Principles for Personal Growth and Rejuvenation after Forty, calls this a 30 year bonus
    and uses The Third Age to signify a new period of not possible for
    previous generations.

  • Visit site
    August 23, 2011 11:25 amPosted 12 years ago

    To reshape the negative views of aging that exist, I believe we each must intentionally look at the quality of our own character. We must desire to grow in many areas. Some I’m considering in my life are: trust in God, adaptability, patience, kindness, discernment, affirmation, generosity, vibrance, caring, teachability, friendship. I’m sure there are many others that are worthy of developing. Reshaping the negative views of aging must begin with me and my influence on those who surround me.

    The terms I would like to use in describing those who are in their later years are in their character. I would choose the most positive character traits and use them to describe/affirm that person. And, I would pray that the same would be done to me.

  • December 11, 2015 5:33 amPosted 8 years ago

    Hi Amy … How about the words “age refined” ??? I love that


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