What is an “older adult” anyway?

In their twilight years, the G.I. generation wanted to be called “senior citizens,” in part because in their youth they had been called “junior citizens.” But the Baby Boomers who increasingly make up society’s older cohort are having none of it. It seems that they prefer—or are believed to prefer—to be called “older adults,” which has become the standard term in the field of aging. But what exactly is an “older adult”? When will I become one?

The ambiguity of the term speaks to a larger confusion about who should be the beneficiaries of aging programs and services, which I noted in a keynote to the Missouri Association of Area Agencies on Aging. I have subsequently identified four different dynamics that contribute to this confusion.

  • First, as life expectancy has increased, the age at which a person needs intensive services and care has increased as well, often to around 75 or 80. Many people—particularly social service providers, in my experience—fear that attention paid to younger “older adults” who can still function independently will reduce the resources available to the frail elderly who really need help.
  • Second, funding constraints have led some organizations to expand their markets by lowering the age of eligibility for their services, often from 65 to 50. This allows them to collect additional membership dues or to claim greater utilization of services, allowing them to justify higher budget requests. As a result, a 50 year-old can now join AARP and attend many programs at senior centers.
  • Third, as physical and mental decline are increasingly detached from chronological age (since socioeconomic and behavioral factors often play as great a role), some agencies have shifted their focus from “aging” to vulnerability and disability. For example, the federal Administration on Aging has now become the Administration for Community Living, having merged with the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the HHS Office on Disability.
  • Fourth, there is evidence that all life stages are now in flux, with Boomers embarking on “encore” careers and Millennials living at home well into their twenties. Laura Carstensen from the Stanford Center on Longevity has proposed extending adolescence to age 25 and young adulthood to age 40, with people being most productive career-wise from 40 to 65 before easing out of the workforce by age 80. I explored this possibility in Scenario #4 in a set of scenarios on older adults in the year 2035 that I developed recently for the Howard County (Maryland) Department of Citizen Services. In this scenario, the term “aging” ultimately expands to refer to a process of continuously unfolding human potential throughout the life course.

These four dynamics simply suggest that the notion of “aging” is not as simple as it used to be, and that it needs to be reconsidered. (For example, if I’m not a full-fledged adult until age 40, as Carstensen would suggest, then why am I already an “older adult” only 10 years later?) The challenge here is to reexamine the entire life course and find where people need extra support to live healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives.