Sunday, January 07, 2007

Don't call me a "little old lady"!

I'm always surprised by how acceptable it is in our society to call older people disparaging names.

I was reading a newspaper article today about Barack Obama's popularity in Illinois, which quoted Emil Jones Jr, president of the Illinois Senate, as saying, "Sitting across the table from me was a little old lady, said she was 86 years old," who hoped she'd live long enough to vote for Obama for President.

I was startled by reading this mature woman described as "a little old lady," and I didn't like it. OK, I'm little (4' 10"), 63 years old, and female -- but "little old lady" belittles my maturity and experience and sounds like it would be uttered while patting me on the head. Didn't the 86-year-old elder deserve a more dignified description? If she had been male, would she have been described by Mr. Jones as "an old geezer"?

When the creeps trashed my blog, they talked about it among themselves (yes, I was able to electronically eavesdrop) as "the old lady's sex blog." That amused more than insulted me, because it was so far from the truth of what happens here or who I am. But it's part of the bigger picture of older people being seen as subjects of ridicule, especially regarding sexuality.

I know there's no consensus about what to call older people without offending us! I like the term "senior," although I know some dislike it. I like "elder" because it connotes wisdom and sounds respectful, even reverent -- but I don't feel old enough to deserve being called an elder. "Mature" is a nice adjective, though "mature adult" sounds stilted.

What do you like to be called? Which terms feel dignified to you? Which feel belittling? Post a comment or email me, and let's talk about this. Young people, you can chime in, too -- is it a dilemma knowing what to call us? What about what we call you?

Looking forward to your comments,



  1. Robert, age 70January 07, 2007

    If I have to be labeled, I choose the term "elder," which is used in indigenous cultures and in several religious denominations as a term of respect, honor, and responsibility.

    While I can see the reason and even the need for describing older people by some label, it has always concerned me that in news reports of all sorts, the age of people seems to be an important detail. However, I can understand in the context of this article why the age of the woman was important.

    I think in general we live in such an age-conscious society and label every generation. What do we call the older generation? Lumping us all together disregards that each of us is an individual.

    If I'm described, I'd just as soon be called "a man," not an "elder" or "senior."

  2. Joan, I hear you! I'm coming up on 48, and I just hate the false beliefs that people have about MY age group. I know it only gets worse from here. There's even a book about having good sex after 40. What? Since when does sex change after 40? The whole idea is offensive.

    The problem is that our society is so paranoid about growing older, and while I'll admit I'm just as paranoid as the next person, I resent the need to disparage others just because they aren't yet there. It'll come quickly enough, right?

    I agree that "little old lady" is a stupid way to describe a human being. And the guys who called your blog that name are idiots plain and simple, and probably impotent to boot. They're only compensating for their own insecurities and incompetence - it's quite pathetic actually.

  3. Robert, age 70January 07, 2007

    You've got their number, Melanie. Men are terrified about not being able to perform or live up to our culture's inflated stereotype of maleness.

    I wouldn't go so far as to call the blog trashers "impotent." However, it appears they are not likely to have the courage to stand up for a more honest response to their own fears and doubts -- and that's a form of impotence.

  4. >>What do you like to be called?<<

    "Gene" is my preference.

    I think the best comeback to age dissing was Ronald Reagan when Walter Mondale said that Reagan's ideas were "too old," a thinly disguised reference to Reagan's age. Reagan said, "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I'm not going to exploit for political purposes my opponents youth and inexperience."

    That is the way to answer the age challenged.

  5. I read or heard recently(on Jon Stewart maybe?) that the only complimentary way to describe an old person in the media is as "adorable." It's like you've regressed to childhood and become adorable instead of handsome, or good looking or commanding or even homely.

    How did we get to be "adorable?" That's so demeaning. I've even used it myself--about my mom and her friends when she was in her 80s--though now that I think about it I sure won't anymore.

    I'm 64, haven't been adorable since I was 5k, and have no intention of ever being adorable. Just call me obnoxious, a pain in the ass, cute would be ok, pretty even better, pushy certainly, but never, never adorable.

    As for what we older folks want to be called, elderly is ok, the label "elder" has always been respectful. I don't mind "old woman" -- that's a lot better than "little old lady" which is demeaning. I was a fat activist a while ago and the movement decided it was OK to be called "fat." So we're old, so what. Why not take the stigma away from being old rather than worry about calling a spade a spade.

    Erica Manfred

  6. I love to be called anything representing positive, healing energy.

    I love the term, dowager, but it refers only to a widow who has inherited property. I've not inherited a stitch.

    I don't love the term, elderly spinster because I don't spin distressed cloth or wear button-hook shoes. I'm mature, but not cognitively aged like sharp cheese or dry wine.

    I don't love the term, matron. The matron was the lady who used to make sure children sat quietly in the children's section of those 1940s movie houses of my childhood.

    I don't like the word 'matronly,' as in "I'm asking you for a date because XYZ looks too matronly around the middle for me."

    What I really like to be called most is 'Love,' as in "Happy anniversary, love." And if a stranger must call me by a title, the word "Ma'am" is respectful and friendly until I'm asked for my name. It's what is most approachable that counts with me.


  7. I think young people put older people down in words and anger because only old people remind young people of everyone's mortality. It's what Ray Bradbury calls the fear of in one of his stories, "the skeleton within."

  8. Joan,

    Thank you for being our speaker tonight. It went fabulously well.

    Just marvelous m'dear.

    BTW, can I have permission to reprint your column from our newsletter to put on my blog? I'd love to do a write up about tonight's meeting.


  9. I've been called the old fart by relatives who say the same thing about themselves. It's always followed by a burst of laughter, and I've learned to laugh with them. But I think this society should respect the wise mature woman (and man) for their knowledge of life experience instead of being the butt of jokes about grandmas, old timers, pops, and old ladies, battle axes, and old bags. I've read quotes in newspaper articles where a woman of 50 was called an old bag by a young female executive.

    Five generations of the women in my family have been called li'l ole lady or l'l old mama by the males in the family. Husbands have addressed their wives as li'l ole mama and also li'l woman, then li'l ole' woman.....(as in woo--man).

    My paternal grandma was under 5 feet tall, a fire-engine red-head (natural) with freckles and cornflower blue eyes. She married her cousin in the old country and had nine children. The women in this large, multi cultural family have always been addressed as ole' mama. As soon as the women were married, they were no longer blooming, blusing brides, but called 'mama' by all the males. When they passed their 35th birthday (by which time they had at least 5 of their 9 children), they became old mama or "li'l ole lady--or even more diminutive--li'l old ladybug."

    I have white hair, baggy green eyes, and look older than my age of 65. So many times as I've passed a teenager (male) in the street, I hear this loud guffaw followed by "hey, old lady!" yelled in a hostile way for no apparent reason to me.

    Then another day I hear an older man (usually a homeless type or a man of another race standing in the doorway)...Suddenly he shouts, "Hey, Grandma."

    Another time a young man in his twenties screams at me as I step off the curb, "Hey, old lady, can I help you cross the street?" I nod, smile and ignore him, walking on my way.

    I walk the block from my home to the supermarket with my own little shopping cart. The men may be young or old, homeless or employed, but they say the same words with a hostile explosion: "Hey, old lady...can you spare a dime for the homeless for Xmas?"...Or "Hey, old lady," or "Hey, grandma...."

    I wonder what they want from me? Any clue? Does this mean they are projecting their anger at their own grandma on me?

    I'm 65 and usually smile and nod hello at strangers in the street who ask me how is it going or say "good afternoon." If I carry an umbrella against the sun when it's 104 degrees outside here in California, a young man screams at me...."Hey, (old lady). It's not raining." Or "Hey, that's a nice hat. But it's not Halloween, grandma."

    When my husband volunteered after retirment to help children in a school setting, they called him old timer, gramps, and pops. When a man in his sixties got on the bus last week, the bus driver said, "Hey, old timer, want a transfer?" Another time the driver called a mature man 'pops.' They didn't know each other as far as I could tell.

    One time on a beach I opened an umbrella because the sun was giving me a headache. "It's not raining, grandma" came a shout from two handsome guys in their twenties. You'd think they'd say this when they were alone. No, two guys together amplify the 'old lady' schtick.

    Can you imagine these people volunteering in a nursing home? Or visiting mature folk for a session of intergenerational writing of life story skits and highlights as personal historians? Do they speak this way to their own relatives? Or are they from families in conflict? Is this only a Western phenomenon? Do the old, wise 'crones' of other lands get more respect for their life experience?

    We in the 65 plus category already know we look a certain age. We don't have to be told this time and time again by strangers. The only people walking down the street or riding a bus who aren't shouted at with loud explosions of "Hey grandma" or "Old timer" are people, young or mature, holding white canes.

    Anne Hart
    author of 72 published books

  10. The thing that really infuriates me is when people call me "young lady," as if that is supposed to be flattering, rather than condescending. I usually call people on it, telling them that I know they are trying to be nice, but please don't ever do it again to me or any other older adult, as it is extremely insulting. It is a good thing I don't pack a pistol, because that particular insult sends me into a murderous rage. (Headline: "Little Old Lady Shoots Mouthy Thirty-something").

  11. Living in the South, perhaps I experience this more than most, but I hate being called "ma'am." That really makes me feel old.

  12. I'm not insulted when someone calls me "young lady." Obviously, we both get the joke! Nor do I feel offended when a check-out clerk asks if I'm a "senior." Hey, I may qualify for a discount. "Elder" wouldn't offend me either, except that I don't look or feel elderly...just older. (But doesn't that apply to everyone, young or old? We're all older this year than we were the year before.)

    "Senior" is fine with me. But if there's so much dissatisfaction with existing terms, let's come up with a catchy, creative, new word with a little humor attached. Something like POSSLQ.
    Perhaps OPSAAK (Older Person Still Alive And Kicking) or _____ (your turn to fill in the blank).
    --Toni Goldfarb

  13. Jeanne ErdmannJanuary 17, 2007

    Is 63 old? Ha! My 91-year-old mother is currently getting dressed for her weekly session with a personal trainer, a woman who shows no mercy. I'm 53 and a competitive figure skater and my freestyle coach is 73, gorgeous, and outskates just about everyone.

    I started skating a few years ago to relieve the stress of being cooped up in a house all day writing and caring for my Mom, who has mild cognitive impairment (Although, if I ever hunt down the doctor who called this "mild" I'll likely do him harm.)

    I love to skate and try and go to the rink 3-4 times each week. Late last year, my freestyle coach talked me into competing, so far silver is the lowest medal I have but I do have the bug.

    I also started skating with a partner recently, a dream come true if you like ice dance. He's 11 years younger. We've done some local Christmas shows and we're skating in a couple's spotlight in a competition the last weekend in January.

    Yours in the sisterhood of writing and spunky aging,


  14. David, age 80January 23, 2007

    I am 80 years old. Been through a war, a divorce, a depression, death of a child, and several really serious challenges. I am called a "senior citizen"? What the hell was I before? A junior citizen? Sophomore?

    I really do not care how they categorize me. But, if asked (you did), "elderly gentleman" fills the bill nicely.

    I smile when some twenty years old receptionist or nurse or someone calls me David. The other day one did. "Do I know you?" I asked. "What ?" she replied. I repeated. She was dumb, didn't get the point.

    "What is YOUR name?" I asked. "Matilda". "Oh, I thought perhaps we were aquainted." She never got the point.

    My culture has a commandment to "Stand up before a grey hair (person)". I do not expect such respect for age in these days... but my children and grand children observe this precept.

    What the hell, let's keep our sense of humor.


    PS.... just remember....behind your back they call you an old fart!

  15. Down here in my part of the world, Queensland, Australia, we seniors are called 'oldies' ... and that doesn't bother me a bit!
    Better than 'old fart' ...

  16. Joan,

    Thanks for visiting my new blog and commenting about the CSI "Babes".

    Television is so discriminatory, as if life isn't bad enough for aging women, we have to fight stereotypes in entertainment.

    I think that's why I like British television quite a bit. I mean having middle-aged and older women in dramas makes sense—they can have *serious* problems and not just reiterate the "dating claptrap" that passes for story structure here in America.

    I know I, too, work hard at being fit. I walk six days a week, do Pilates, some Yoga and now have started weight lifting seriously. And I feel in better shape and think that women are really sexy until they PASS 40 years old when the baby fat melts away and their faces take on real character.

    Thanks for letting me vent.


    Andrea Campbell

  17. At age 55 I'm still in the early stages of being an "elder," but I'm already noticing things which bother me about the treatment of older people.

    What really stands out to me is this incident: I was out one night dressed all sexy and this younger woman who is obviously into being a hottie, and who once told me she thought of me as a mom or aunt figure, looked at me and said with very obvious surprise in her voice, "You're HOT!" Her tone of voice came across to me as indicating that at my age I shouldn't be "hot" anymore. Granted I have to work at it much harder than she does, she's 26. But why should it be so surprising and incredible that an older woman is still sexy?

    I don't like being cast as the cute auntie/mama who dotes on all the pretty young girls like I'm not a pretty girl anymore myself, like my sexuality is a thing of the past. Considering the total package -- accomplishment, beauty, confidence, fitness, etc. -- I'm in my prime right now.

    I have other younger friends who think I'm cool and aren't surprised at all when I'm showing cleavage. And they just call me by my name. I think they appreciate that I let them see what they can be when they're my age. We can't always ignore the age difference between us, but we don't treat it as anything extraordinary. I think I help this along by treating them as other people, period, and not often taking on a motherly role.

    I've always been sensitive to treatment which is motivated by an assumption that I'm not significant, or by an attempt, conscious or not, to belittle me. I don't think anyone should be treated this way. One example of this is when people I don't know call me cutesy names like "sweetie." This bothers me more if men do it. It's overly familiar and just plain rude. I also bristle at being laughed at in a way that says, "Oh you silly little thing, you think you're so serious but you're not." Nowadays I might attribute this sort of treatment to ageism, but it was happening when I was younger too.

    My husband and I used to second guess his 90 something dad. Dad would say, for instance, that he didn't want to have Thanksgiving dinner with us. We would think, oh of course he really does, and try to talk him into it. "Are you sure, Dad?" Then it occurred to us that Dad knows what he wants and means what he says.

    One day there was this lady who I would have to call "elderly," maybe in her 90's, with bright white hair, dressed in this lovely dark purple dress, shopping at a small local grocery store. She was awesome. One of the teenage clerks went over to her and started cooing, "Oh Ms. So and So, don't you look so cute today in your purple dress." You would talk to a 6 year old the same way. It really bothered me. If I make it into my 90's I sure won't want to be treated like a child.

    Here in the south it's an inevitability that I'll be called "ma'am." Generally "ma'am" or "sir" are terms of respect used for our elders. Most southerners were taught to respect older people and to be polite in general, though admittedly we still have a ways to go before we are completely rid of our ageism and sexism.

    A short hundred years ago humans over the age of 50 were rare. Now we are the largest segment of the population. We "oldies" have a golden opportunity to change the way older people are viewed and treated. We have power. But the prevailing culture as a whole is not going to give us this, we have to claim it ourselves.

    We could begin by owning our wonderfulness, whatever that is to each of us individually, and projecting that by our presence. Do we stand up as straight as we can? Do we carry ourselves as if we are still potent, attractive, in charge of our lives? Do we own that we are experienced and accomplished? Author Stephanie Marston says "Strut your stuff even if it's sagging." How others respond to us in our daily lives depends a lot on how we feel about ourselves. And if enough of us are owning and projecting our dignity, the mainstream culture will take notice, and attitudes will change.

    We also have to stand up for ourselves when we're being put down. Look at rude youngsters over our (reading) glasses with an attitude of "what's wrong with YOU?" Flip them the bird. Or talk to them. Raise their consciousness! A prerequsite for all this is that we have to believe that we are worthy of the same respect everyone else is. In other words we have to reject the ageism (and for women the sexism as well) that we ourselves have internalized.

    I still don't know what I want to be called. Any term with the word "little" in it is out, for obvious reasons. I don't like the term "crone" which is so popular with some of my wiccan and eco-feminist friends. The term "elder" brings to mind the men at churches who run things while the women of the same age do the tedious work. Also "elder" implies more responsibility than I want to have. "Oldster" sounds clumbsy to me. "Old" implies that one is no longer interesting and viable, and it's definitely not sexy. The Australians' word "oldies" is not bad. It's been pointed out that we are all getting older every day of our lives, so I'm comfortable with "older." I refer to myself as an older lady, a sexy older lady, or an older woman. I think when I'm about 80 I might be okay with "elderly."

    Perhaps in a world with no ageism we wouldn't need to separate ourselves to such an extent that we need a special term for who we are.

    BTW -- A note of hope from the U.S. entertainment world: has anyone else noticed that the Hallmark Channel sometimes has movies where the main character is an older person? Granted they're not on the level of the British, but they're a step in the right direction. They show one from time to time starring Anne Margaret where she ends up all happy with a new lover. And I love the one with Ed Asner as the cool grandfather who lives in the woods.

  18. In regards to what I like to be called, Annabelle is my name by law of the government. As far as friends go, any little term of endearment is fine with me. My family calls me things like "Honey, Darling, Babe, Sweetheart, Sweetie Pie, Dear, and Honey Bunny. My friends call me things like "Hon, Dear, Sweetie, Honey, Sweetie Pie, Babe, and Sunshine". Some people call me "Love", which I don't mind at all. One of those instances is when I met Singer/Songwriter Ben Taylor, the son of Singer/Songwriters James Taylor and Carly Simon. When I heard him call me "Love", I smiled sweetly. At least he didn't call me "Lady" or "Young Lady". If he did that, I wouldn't want to be his friend! Which that would've broken my heart, since I love him like he was my brother! He's just about as young as I am, except that he was born on January 22, 1977. So, I'd say he's still in my group of society members. My mom has even made a cutesy name for me, "Honeybelle", which is a combination of "Honey" and "Annabelle". In regards to what I don't like to be called, it's usually anything that associates with the terms "Lady", and "Young Lady". I often go into a murderous rage, and my blood is brought to a boil when I hear the terms "Lady" and "Young Lady", no matter who they're being said to or about. Whether it's me or another female, please, please, please don't call anyone "Lady" or "Young Lady". One of my music teachers says that because I hate these terms, he thinks I'm being "Insincere", and "Sarcastic". This teacher of mine is supposed to be my friend, but I just can't seem to make him understand! My mother, for whatever perverse reason, says to me that "I'm the only one out of billions of people in the whole world that is offended with this term". I always say, "Please, have mercy on me!" I've done research over many years, and it states that "Lady" and "Young Lady" can be very demeaning, degrading, and condescending. After all, the term "Lady" was invented in England in the year 1100, with the purpose of distinguishing commoners from royals. In other words, what I'm trying to say is, only royal females should be addressed as "Lady" or "Young Lady". As a child of the eighties, born on July 15, 1984 to be exact, I was taught, along with many other children of my generation, to shun those in society who even dared use the terms "Lady" and "Young Lady" when referring to females outside of the royal families. With the term "Young Lady", when I was growing up, and even to this day, the only way I've heard it being said is in angry tones by Mothers and Fathers, especially when their daughters are still baby girls! My maternal Grandmother has called me this term, mostly in angry tones by the way, the worst of it was given to me when I was eighteen! This horrible incident happened when we were grocery shopping one warm summer day in August of 2003, particularly to buy food for me. It seems she pulled my last strings, and then we were fight-ting! I happened to stumble across something on my shopping list, a Marie Callender's Spaghetti Entree to be exact, and Grandma went scouring the frozen entrees section, only to find out they didn't have any. So, being the Dirty Dawson that she can be at times, Grandma tried to talk me into buying something different. This led me to say, "But I don't want that kind, I want this kind!" This prompted my Grandmother to get up all her nerves, and say something to me that I hope one day she'll regret! I don't remember all of what she said, but
    I do remember that she started off with a stern, "Young Lady!". To this day, Grandma's hurtful words are still clawing at my heart like an angry sea turtle! My paternal Grandmother, who I never got along with, told me that if I didn't address any females as "Lady" or "Young Lady", she would slap me in the face! May Bruce Springsteen have mercy on her soul! That's why, when I become a mother, I've made a vow never to call my daughters "Lady" or "Young Lady", no matter how old they may be. I will make this a house rule, that the phrases "Lady" and "Young Lady" should never be said in my home, since the house rule that I have will
    consider them to be profanity. The rules in my house will clearly state that no matter who comes over, "Lady" and "Young Lady" are impolite terms, and
    they are not to be said under any circumstances whatsoever, especially when referring to little girls! As a member of society who believes in political correctness when it comes to gender, males are generally "Boys" (17 and Under), and "Men" (18 and older), and females are generally "Girls" (17 and Under), and "Women" (18 and older). However, Boys and Men can be interchangeable with adult males, just as Girls and Women can be interchangeable with adult females. Also, females, whether girls or women, can be referred to as "Sister", and Males, whether boys or men, can be referred to as "Brother". I'm a member of society who strictly believes that "Lady" is only a title of respect when referring to the wife or daughter of a knight or nobleman, or the counterpart of a Lord or Gentleman. Knights, Noblemen, Lords, and Gentlemen are specifically part of the royal families. That's the way I'm taught it should be, and I want to try to enforce that with everyone in the world. However, even my family and my school teachers don't understand that. Instead, they turn it around and say that as a title of respect, all females, sadly including me, should be called "Lady" or "Young Lady". How do I knock it into them that it makes me angry and that it hurts my feelings, without offending anyone? Also, I'm a believer in Brotherly and Sisterly love, and I, along with many others, believe that the terms "Lady" and "Young Lady" are the root cause of arguments, confrontations, fights, and wars all over the world. My mission is to bring all the Brotherly and Sisterly Love back into this world. That's the one element that over the years has been taken away by people who don't seem to have a care in the world. These are the people who only believe in hatred and violence. I'm telling you, that's the wrong way to go! That's the reason why I don't even believe in spanking! Spanking leaves you with a bruise! Brotherly and Sisterly Love is the one thing that shall steer us all in the right direction down this road of life. Brotherly and Sisterly Love is what makes this world a happy home! I'm here to bring us all home to Philadelphia. You probably
    may not know this, but Philadelphia literally means "Brotherly and Sisterly Love". It is derived from the Greek words, "Philos", which means "Love" or
    "Loving", Adelphos, which means "Brother", "Brothers", or "Brotherly", and Adelphia, which means "Sister", "Sisters", or "Sisterly". I'm also a singer and songwriter, and I have written songs about peace and harmony, as well as many other kinds of subject matter. One of those songs is a dancy disco tune about Brotherly and Sisterly Love, entitled "Welcome Home To Philadelphia!". This song is a plea for peace and harmony. It is a plea for us all to unite together, and to bring back that Brotherly and Sisterly Love that we are in such desperate need of. Here are some of the lyrics. "No more hate, and no more fears! No more wars, and no more tears! Let's all unite and set our nation free! 'Cause that's the way to be! Welcome home to Philadelphia! The City of Brotherly Love! Let's all love one another! Like Sisters and Brothers! There's Paradise in Philadelphia! The City Of Brotherly Love! Let's be nice to each other! Like Sisters and Brothers!"" What this song is trying to say is, let's stop all the fighting and the arguing. Let's put an end to all the L-Bombs (Calling females "Lady" or "Young Lady")! Let's stamp out the Profanity! Let's banish all the hatred and the fears. Let's get rid of all the weapons and the guns! And let's return home to Philadelphia! Do you agree with me?


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