The Most Offensive Senior Terms and Characterizations

Study finds the descriptions and media portrayals of older adults that offend them the most

Published Jan. 22, 2020

Key Findings

  1. 57% of adults 65 and over dislike being referred to as “elderly.”

  2. The media portrayal of the “kooky conspiracy theorist and culturally insensitive senior” is the most offensive to the demographic.

  3. Older women are generally more likely than older men to dislike the popular words used to describe them, especially terms like "cougar."

Study Overview

Call them “seniors,” not “elderly.”

That’s according to our survey of 562 people aged 65 and older which sought to identify the senior terms and media portrayals that older adults found to be most offensive. 

“Don’t Call Us ‘Elderly’”

“Elderly” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “rather old," and the term is used commonly in everyday language, often as a term of endearment.

But most people aged 65 and over disagree. 57% of our respondents said they dislike being called “elderly,” compared to just 21% who viewed the word favorably. 

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Graphic showing percentages of seniors who like and dislike certain terms used to describe older adults

They could be called much worse, of course:

  • 70% of respondents disliked the word “geezer,” while 16% actually liked the term.

  • The terms “ancient” (68%), “blue hair” (67%), “geriatric” (66%) and “old-timer” (63%) followed as the words most disliked by people 65 and over when used to describe their age demographic.

  • Old” was disliked by 55% of respondents, while nearly 1 in 5 actually liked the word.

  • Senior,” one of the most common terms used to refer to the 65-and-over demographic, was disliked by only about 1 in 5 respondents. 

Opinions about the words used to describe seniors were not evenly split between older men and women. In fact, women were more likely than men to dislike all 12 of the terms in the chart above. 

  • Those discrepancies were highest for “cougar” (which 72% of women disliked, compared to just 46% of men) and “old-timer” (which was disliked by 75% of women but only 48% of men).

  • Women were also 23% more likely to dislike “geezer” and 22% more likely to dislike being called “old.”

“Don’t Insult Our Intelligence”

Older adults are characterized in certain limited ways in advertising, on television and in movies. According to our survey, older adults don’t find many of them to be flattering depictions. We asked our respondents which of the following portrayals of older adults in the media are the most and least offensive to them. 

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Graphic showing percentages of seniors who find common senior stereotypes in media offensive

Graphic showing definitions for common offensive senior stereotypes

Of the three portrayals found to be most offensive, each had to do with the person’s intelligence. The “kooky conspiracy theorist,” the “technologically illiterate” and the “scatter-brained” senior ranked as the three most offensive media portrayals to adults 65 and over.

Our respondents also took offense to being portrayed as:

  • Impolite
  • Stubborn
  • Predominantly playing chess or bingo
  • Shrinking in physical stature
  • Always sleeping

Just 5% of respondents were very offended by being portrayed as cool or athletic. And just 17% of respondents found the depiction of the “naughty senior” trope – depicted using foul language or overt sexual innuendo – as very offensive, while 23% found it not at all offensive. Similar results were returned for the “cute little senior.”

We asked senior adults how aging could be better portrayed in the media and, conversely consistent with our finding of the most offensive portrayals, “intellectual stimulation, learning new things and taking on new hobbies” was the runaway winner.

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Graphic showing percentages of seniors who wish to see more of certain types of positive media portrayals of aging

Conclusion

Many older adults dislike the terms that are commonly used to describe them and find popular media portrayals of their demographic to be offensive. Older women are more likely than older men to dislike the words used to describe people of their age. 

Media creators and advertisers would offend far fewer older adults by replacing some popular senior tropes with an increased sensitivity for older adults’ continued intellectual engagement.

Methodology

This study was conducted from January 15, 2021, using an audience pool gathered using MTurk and Prolific, both of which are polling tools. The total survey included 562 respondents. To qualify, respondents needed to be aged 65 and older.

Participants were filtered based on completion time and failure to follow written instructions within the survey.

Margin of error: +/- 4% (95% confidence interval)

This survey relies on self-reported data.

Fair Use Statement

Of course we would love for you to share our work with others. We just ask that if you do, please grant us the proper citation with a link to this study so that we may be given credit for our efforts.

Research and reports

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