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We Need New Terms for “Seniors”: How About “Younger Seniors” and “Elders”

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One of the challenges in looking at the “senior” population is that the term is too broad. All those 65 and older are classed as “seniors,” yet by most measures there’s a significant difference between most of those in their late 60s and 70s and those in their late 80s and beyond. Most of the younger group are healthy, active and cognitively intact. A large segment of the older group faces health and cognitive challenges. And, in fact, they can be two separate generations with those in their late 60s and early 70s having living parents in their 90s.

Statistics about the number of baby boomers turning 65, often stated as 10,000 a day, tell us little about the need for elder care. More important in terms of predicting and preparing for elder care needs is the number turning 85, which will increase dramatically in about 10 years when the oldest baby boomers start crossing this threshold. Yet it can often be difficult to extract data on these different cohorts because the U.S. Census Bureau and other researchers put them all in the same 65 and over bucket, or sometimes distinguish between those 65 and over and those 75 and over, but almost never those 85 and over.

What the Numbers Show

But here are a few statistics:

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2018 there were just over 900,000 residents of residential care communities, meaning assisted living and continuing care retirement communities. Of these, 12% were between the ages of 65 and 74, 26% between 75 and 84, and 55% age 85 or older.
  • Interestingly, the ages of the 1.2 million nursing home residents skews a bit younger with 18% being between 65 and 74, 27% between 75 and 84, and 39% 85 and older.
  • A study by the HHS Office of Disability, Aging and Long-Term Care Policy found that while just 8% of adults 65 to 74 and over had severe long-term care needs in 2014, 40% of those 85 and older did, a five-fold increase.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau reports that due to the size of the baby boomer population, the 65 and older population grew at its fastest rate from 2010 to 2020, reaching 56 million. Of these, 33 million were between the ages of 65 and 74, 16 million 75 to 84, and 6 million 85 and older.
  • Crunching these numbers, approximately 0.3 percent of those between 65 and 75 are residents of care communities, 1.4% of those 75 to 84, and 8% of Americans 85 and older. Similarly, approximately 0.7 percent of those between 65 and 75 are residents of nursing homes, 2% of those 75 to 84, and 8% of Americans 85 and older.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, 19% of American adults age 65 and over and 9% of those 75 and above are still in the workforce. Other studies report that 26% of Americans age 65 to 74 as compared to 4% of those 85 and over are still working.

In short, if you’re in your late 60s or early 70s, there’s a very small chance you need any assistance of any kind and a decent chance you’re still working. If you’re 85 or over, the numbers reverse. You’re almost certainly not working and there’s a good chance you need assistance. Yet, your called a “senior” either way.

Clouding Future Trends

And more important, by classifying all those ages 65 and up in the same group, we obfuscate coming changes, especially in the area of elder care. While it’s important that huge numbers of baby boomers are crossing the age-65 threshold in large part because they are likely to leave labor force (part of the explanation why the demand for workers is so high today), the real challenge will come in about 10 years when the oldest baby boomers begin to reach their late 80s. The Administration on Aging projects that the 85 and older population will more the double from 6.7 million in 2020 to 14.4 million 2040. That means that the need for long-term care services will also more than double over the next two decades — and are system is already strained.

Some New Terms

So, we need terms that distinguish between younger and older “seniors.” In their book, What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age, Ken Dychtwald and Robert Morison tell us about Maggie Kuhn, a co-founder of the Gray Panthers in 1970, who hated the word “seniors,” as well as “long-term care” and “geriatric care.” She and Dychtwald came up with the term “elder care,” which seems to have stuck. Dychtwald and Morison in their book use the words “older,”mature,” “senior,” and “elder,” somewhat interchangeably.

The fact that Dychtwald and Morison use a number of different terms to describe older folk, reflects the difficulty in coming up with the right words. I think it’s relatively easy to find a word for the older group. I’d call those 85 and over “elders,” which connotes wisdom and respect. It also indicates that this cohort is older.

Finding a term for younger seniors between the ages of 65 and 84 is more difficult, but perhaps we should simply use that descriptive — “younger seniors.” It’s a bit cumbersome, in part because it’s two words, but by including the word “younger” it makes it clear that this group for the most part is healthy, active, and cognitively intact. And, of course, the baby boomers who make up this cohort today often have trouble with the concept of aging and still think of themselves as young.

So, let’s give it a try, distinguishing between younger seniors and elders. Unless you have better suggestions, in which case, please let me know.

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