Our Thoughts

From Serving Iowa Elders for Over 20 Years

What Does It Mean to Be a Senior Citizen?

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As geriatric social workers, we notice that there are certain times in a person’s life when he/she begins to contemplate this question:

*When one is approaching a significant birthday
*When someone feels ill and/or disabled
*When a person assumes the care of a senior citizen
*When one’s own parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and/or neighbors become senior citizens
*When a student has an assignment for school about senior citizens
*When someone gets a job working with seniors
*When someone approaches retirement

So, what is the definition of a senior citizen? Who is a senior?

These two questions are easily answered by an unhelpful but true statement, “It depends.”

It depends upon how you as an individual define it or how your employer defines it or how your government defines it or how a business defines it, etc. Thus, the answer to “Who is a senior?” is as varied as the individuals and/or entities asking and defining the answers. This begs another set of questions that need to be explored in this discussion of what it means to be a senior citizen:

Who is defining this period of time in our life, how are they defining it, and why are they defining it?

Who? The answer to this question is huge and probably never-ending. A few entities and individuals come to mind, including:

*American Association of Retired People
*Life Insurance Companies
*Health Insurance Companies
*The World Health Organization
*The US Department of Health and Human Services
*The Department of Medicare/Medicaid
*Retirement Communities
*Restaurants
*Hotels/Motels
*Travel Agencies/Cruise Lines
*Car Insurance Companies
*Our employers
*Financial Institutions
*US Department of Revenue
*Our children
*Our religious institutions
*Ourselves
*Physicians and other medical providers
*Our neighbors
*Our extended family members

How is senior citizen defined?

Is it defined by age? Is it defined by our work history or retirement? It is defined by our physical ability or disability? Is it defined by our monetary worth as an employee? Is it defined as our productive worth as an employee? Is it defined by our relationship to others that are younger in our family and/or community? Is it defined by our mental abilities or disabilities?

Asking, “How is senior citizen defined?” really starts to get at the “meat” of the definition of being a senior citizen and accentuates the problem with defining this period of life. We, as social workers working primarily with senior citizens, find that definitions of being a senior citizen change throughout their lives. This definition changes depending upon the age of the person, the physical and/or mental capabilities of the person, the employment status of the person, the mental health of the person, the life experiences of the person, and the expectations of life for the future of each individual.

Why is senior citizenship being defined? Is it being defined in order to classify a group of people for a study? Is the definition used to exclude or include certain people for housing, government programs, or reduced rates at businesses? Is the definition used to determine rates for insurance? Is the definition used by an individual to access whether he/she should be capable of doing certain activities? There are many reasons why the image of “senior years” is defined. It is important to understand the reasons why the definition is being created while considering the definition.

As discussed today, the definition of being a senior citizen is complex and varied. As expected there is no one right answer to this question. The answers are as varied as the reasons for asking the question. We hope that this discussion will stimulate you, our readers, to think about your own definition of what it means to be a senior. Please feel free to share your thoughts about this subject and your personal definition of senior citizenship in our comments section. This discussion will start out fairly academic but quickly morph into talking about how “academic” and “official” definitions of being a senior citizen affects our personal expectations, stereotypes, fears, concerns, and planning for this period in our life.

In the next blog, we will explore some of the definitions of senior citizen that exist currently.

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