'Superadults' - a word whose time has come?

As visitors approach the entrance to Drummond Castle Gardens in Crieff, Scotland, they come upon a sign listing the admission prices. For adults, tickets cost 3.50 (about $5). For those over 60, a group the castle cheerfully calls "superadults," the price drops to 2.50 ($3.50).

Superadults! Finally, a positive term for maturity. What a refreshing change from the usual staid references to "senior citizens" or, in the common British parlance, "old-age pensioners," known as OAPs.

"The word brightens everyone up when they see it," says Joe Buchanan, the castle's public-access manager, in a telephone interview. "Children come running and say, 'Granny, you're a superadult!' "

The invented word even rates a mention in a relatively new weekly feature in The Times (London), whimsically titled "Not Dead Yet." The newspaper describes it as "a column that challenges ageism and celebrates being 50-plus."

Every week, editors compile a list of quotations and comments from readers, highlighting positive and negative references to aging. It appears in a section called "Lifetime," devoted to those over 50.

Because those in this category are "largely ignored or laughed at," editors explain, the aim is to "redress the balance so the over-50s are given more credit for their contribution."

Older people, they caution, defy easy categorization and cannot be lumped into an "all-embracing grey market."

Antonia Bunch of Haddington, England, who submitted the entry about Drummond Castle Gardens, explains that as an active 60-something woman, she likes being classed as a superadult. Then she adds a plea: 'Others, please copy.' "

It is probably wishful thinking to hope that such a lighthearted term will achieve widespread acceptance. Still, the upbeat word serves as a reminder that the names we use to des-cribe people exert a powerful influence in shaping public attitudes. All the usual terms - "elderly," "seniors," "older people" - sound so, well, over-the-hill, not to mention condescending and even fragile.

Those downbeat terms also fail to acknowledge the ways in which older people - make that superadults - are breaking barriers and defying negative stereotypes. Ninetysomethings still compete in senior tennis tournaments. A few centenarians still head off to work every day.

It is in the workplace, in fact, where the need for positive images of the over-50 set may be greatest. In a vibrant economy, skilled workers of every age serve as a valuable commodity. But now, as the US economy slows and some companies are starting to downsize, employees in their 50s are gently being given incentives to leave. Through sweetened pensions and golden parachutes, employers are making them offers they cannot - or dare not - refuse.

Decades of experience walk out the door, heading for - what? The golf course? Another job somewhere else?

For some workers, the incentives to leave come as a welcome change, of course. But for those who hadn't planned to retire yet, the suddenness of their "retirement" can pose challenges. Their departure can also subtly perpetuate images of older people as expendable.

"They're offered a buyout and don't have the opportunity to mull it over," says Robert Atchley, chairman of the gerontology department at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. "They feel pushed. It looks like a decision to retire, but when you get closer to it, it wasn't a decision that was made at their own pace. It was a forced pace of decisionmaking."

As age-defying baby boomers look ahead to their "golden" years, with or without retirement, perhaps they'll insist on new, more positive terms to describe this stage of life. In the meantime, even those of us still too young to qualify for senior discounts can offer praise to Drummond Castle Gardens for its enlightened terminology.

Superadults of the world, unite!

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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