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What is a Senior?


 A basic premise about ageing dates from the time of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The Chancellor, faced with the political crisis of destitute elderly living in the streets, arbitrarily picked an age of eligibility for government pensions. Old Otto arbitrarily picked 65 years because he thought, seriously, that hardly anyone lived beyond that age. Life expectancy was 45 years old. He felt that if people lived to 65, then they were entitled to some leisure time before they died. Perhaps back in Otto's day, 1889, few people did live to 'retirement' age; today, most do. 

  In the United States, the retirement age of 65 for Social Security was chosen at a time when the average life expectancy was 62 years. Again, social policy rather than functional ability was the basis on which the retirement age was chosen. 

  Almost as hard as it struck in Canada, the Great Depression caused havoc in the USA; and many senior citizens lost their savings and many of the few pension programmes that were in existence were wiped out. United States president Franklin Roosevelt proposed legislation designed to protect senior citizens from such hardships. The first Social Security cheque recipient, Ida Mae Fuller, generated a great deal of publicity when she received her $22.54 cheque. She had contributed $22 in premiums from her job as a law clerk. Ida Mae Fuller lived for another thirty-five years, far longer than the average life span for the era. Over the course of her life, she received $22,000.

 People who study aging talk about the “young-old,” roughly age 65 to 75, and the “old-old,” a group that tends to have more physical needs and functional impairments. The problem with terms like “the elderly” or “seniors” is that they lump these two groups together, and none of the young-old want to be identified with the old-old.

  Margaret Morganroth Gullette, 70, author of “Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America” and a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University: “I prefer descriptions that imply movement to those that are static. Phrases like “aging past youth” or “aging into the middle years” or “aging toward old age” — I’d like to see those mainstreamed.”

 Thomas Cole, director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston: “We’ve tried “elder,” but people don’t like that because it reminds them of patriarchy and the church. We replaced “old age” with “aging,” which carried more of a sense of dynamism, but now that doesn’t work either because of the anti-aging movement.”

 “Longevity” is a more positive term, without all the negative associations other words have gathered, but you can’t call an older person a “longevitist.”

 We don’t call people “junior citizens,” so why do we call them “senior citizens”?

 Today’s senior citizens have survived a lifetime of change. They were here before the Pill, penicillin, plastic, and pantyhose, before television, Xerox, ball point pens. Before tape recorders, much less CD players, before the 40-hour week, co-ed dormitories, and computers.  Before pacemakers, non-stick frying pans, Velcro, fibre optics, teabags and the breathalyser, to name just a few.