Is it time to scrap the ‘senior citizen’ tag?

Through the lens, lightly


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 2 Jun 2022, 4:10 PM

My aunt — my favourite aunt — has always been a sedentary person. Even when she was 30, there was nothing she’d like better than be a couch potato and watch movies on the trot on our VCR player. Later on, she graduated, with aplomb, to watching soap operas in the afternoon; at times, she’d bypass the ritual of the afternoon tea because it would be too much of an effort to get up, walk 14 feet to the kitchen, and embark on the onerous task of making tea. “Uff, I’m sooooo exhausted,” she would say.

Of course, everyone else in the family would constantly be on her case, and ask her to move around, go for a walk, take a yoga class. She would nod her head vigorously — but then settle down in bed. She was never out of shape, and was quite a looker, so one couldn’t use the “you’re becoming fat” line to bait her.

My aunt’s now touching 70, and mentally the same as she used to be — but she’s developed a few health problems. I was speaking to my cousin — her son — the other day (she has been living with him for a couple of months), and he said she refuses to budge from one corner to the other, which may be the reason why she’s developed these health issues in the first place. “Yeah, but — as far as I remember — she used to be like that even when she was in her 30s,” I said.

“Correct,” my cousin responded. “But there’s a difference now. Earlier, she’d be sheepish, but now, whenever I ask her to be get more active, she has a ready answer: ‘I’m a senior citizen, don’t expect me to do what younger people do’.”

These days, he continued, she’s making full use of the import of the term “senior citizen”. To her advantage — and disadvantage.

But other than my aunt’s case, I’ve often wondered what it means when you classify a person as a ‘has been’ — however gently, with an attendant beatific smile puckering your lips — by suggesting a wheelchair can be arranged double quick or that there will be a concession on airfare just because you are no longer 59 and suddenly 60 (or you are no longer 64 and suddenly 65 — different regions have different benchmarks, but the smugness of imputing ‘seniority’ remains the same). Or sharing catalogues of ‘senior living’ facilities — aka, assisted living — where silver-haired people try and wobble a leg or two in an attempt to be spry. Or putting in place a separate line for the ‘seniors’ because, you know, they are so old, and their line better be short and faster moving else they’d all be gasping for breath.

So, whatever happened to age is just a number? Why are we classifying the entire human race into compartments — the classic one-size-fits-all formula? The cosmos seems to have decided what kind of stereotypical filling someone over 60 — the ‘senior citizen’ — will totter into, with or without dentures.

“Senior citizenry is about being retired,” someone pointed out helpfully. And yet, this is an era where “retirement” has ceased to be what it used to be — even though being a ‘retiree’ has always been entirely different from being ‘aged’: 30 year olds want to retire; 80 year olds don’t want to retire. So, why can’t ‘senior citizens’ be branded a pejorative? Why aren’t more people getting outraged over this ageist infringement?

Now on to the funny side. A friend told me he and his father are both senior citizens now. He’s 60 and his father is 86. “We can both check into the same assisted living facility that allows only ‘senior citizens’ through its portals,” he chuckled. “I have to say the generational gap has been felled.”

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