A Second Wind: A senior in baby boomers’ America

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By Mary Petersen
Signal Staff Writer

It’s official.

I laminated my Medicare card, renewed my AARP membership and even cashed in on a half-price Metrolink ticket.

Last month, I reached a milestone birthday and have joined the ranks of senior citizens.

About 10,000 baby boomers turn age 65 each day, according to the National Council on Aging, so I’ve taken my place in the Boomer phenomenon. I must admit that I’m more comfortable with the designation of baby boomer than that of “senior citizen.” The term “senior citizen,” by the way, was first coined during a 1938 political campaign as a euphemism for “old person.” It’s not surprising that a politician strategized that making old people feel better by not calling them old people might get him some votes.

Despite this attempt at inoffensive phrasing, negative stereotypes about senior citizens abound. The English language is filled with expressions that describe older adults in less than flattering light: “old fart,” “old bat,” “old geezer” and “old maid.”

In research studies, the words that students associated with older people were shrewd, greedy, selfish, stubborn and grumpy. Other descriptors included closed-minded, boring, forgetful, technologically challenged, and my favorite, wrinkled. Yes, wrinkled! So not only are we difficult to be around, we’re difficult to look at?

In our youth-obsessed culture, we’re held responsible for graying, wrinkling, balding or gaining weight. Some studies report that the public tends to stereotype old people as ugly. (Ouch…Tough crowd)

It’s no surprise then that some of us duck the label of “senior citizen.” We don’t want to be branded as old, especially if age is viewed as a disability and associated with being frail, senile or obsolete. These myths depict old people as uninterested in the outside world and isolated in their homes watching TV or sleeping.

But not every segment of society views seniors with negative stereotypes. When there’s money to be made, baby boomers are a prime target audience for marketing. It’s estimated that there are over 75 million of us in America and that we are the largest and fastest growing age group in society.

“Because of their range of interests and purchasing power, boomers are changing the way older people are represented in the media,” according to professor Suzanne Kunkel, director of the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University.

They are no longer portrayed only as caricatures or objects of amusement. “We’re not just advertising incontinence products and denture powder anymore,” Kunkel said. “We’re now advertising cars and expensive liquor that the marketplace thinks boomers like and can afford.” Some estimates have them controlling 70 percent of the disposable income in the U.S., so boomers are becoming big business.

Due to our sheer numbers, Baby Boomers redefined gender roles, race relations and cultural trends as we moved through the decades. We were a force to be reckoned as we passed through the education system, the labor force, and we are currently shifting society’s view of aging as we retire. Now that baby boomers are turning into senior citizens, we are re-envisioning what it means to age. Whereas past generations wanted to transition from a life of work to a life of rest, today’s seniors look for a good balance of activity and leisure. We utilize technology, embrace new experiences, and expect to continue contributing to society.

Age matters less than attitude. The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that seniors with a positive attitude are 44 percent more likely to recover from a bout of disability. Those who are optimistic and diligent have the capacity to meet life’s unpredictable challenges and develop the resilience to be flexible in the face of change.

These seniors are interested in healthy aging and in having some control over life choices. I like the term “active aging” adopted by the World Health Organization to describe this new breed of senior. It sounds lively and energetic, like I’m at the helm of a sailboat, the wind in my hair, reveling in my golden years as I gaze toward the horizon.

As I write for the Sunday “Senior Living” section, my editor reminds me to focus on senior topics. It’s tricky to determine what constitutes a senior topic when the entrenched images associated with it are memory aids, hearing devices and Jitterbug cellphones. We’re not just interested in senior discounts and Bingo but in making informed choices about politics, healthcare, and preserving assets. As seniors increasingly challenge stereotypes, skewed perceptions about older adults are dispelled.  I’ll do my best to tap into the zeitgeist of this evolving social landscape.

Mary Petersen is a retired COC English Instructor, 30 year SCV resident, and senior citizen newbie.

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