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US Culture Shift: Respect for Elders

Forget 'golden' years, new watchwords for retirement become 'productive' and 'successful'

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In case you weren't aware, the term "senior citizen" is out. So is "golden age." "Elderly" isn't a first choice either.

What's in? "Older adults" or "aging adults" - especially if the latter refers to "productive" or "successful" aging. And "elder" carries with it an increasingly popular cachet of its own - one that evokes wisdom and respect.

It's not just names that are changing, say experts on aging. As America stands on the brink of an unprecedented boom in the number of citizens over the age of 65, the way older adults view themselves - and are viewed by society - is undergoing a profound cultural transformation. It is one that has broad implications for everything from the way these adults are portrayed in the media to the roles they carve out for themselves in leading productive, engaged lives that will redefine not only the meaning of retirement, but what it means to grow older in the new millennium.

"There are a large number of pioneers who are recasting and reshaping and rethinking the life course," says Scott Bass, a gerontologist and dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has focused on the idea of productive aging. "They are ... defining what's called the 'third age.' "

Although stereotypes persist - views that depict older Americans as a drain on resources or as being inevitably diminished by age - increasingly, myths and images of aging are being shattered.

Demographics of the elders

Today, there are some 35 million Americans who are 65 years of age or older, up from just 3.1 million at the turn of the century. They currently make up 13 percent of the population, a figure that is projected to rise to 20 percent by the year 2030 (for a total of some 70 million elder Americans).

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