I am now a pensioner, a retiree, a senior. Those first two labels are quite specific, but the last one? Not so much.

If you receive a pension, you’re a pensioner. If you’re retired, you’re a retiree. Clear cut. But what’s a senior exactly?

A colleague of mine used to write a seniors’ column in the Montreal Gazette, and once pointed out with considerable insight how large and varied – even meaningless — an age category ‘senior’ is. For one thing, there’s no official starting point.

I got my first seniors’ discount at a minor-league ballpark in Vermont when I was 58. More money for ice cream! When I started curling, a sport I’d always associated with an older crowd, I learned that you were considered a senior at 50. And then there is the category of ‘super seniors,’ which I think is actually the same age group. Confusing. Believing I was one of them, I liked that term, ignoring the fact that it referred strictly to age and not to proficiency. Not much of a boast.

Skiing, on the other hand, is a sport I associate with a much younger crowd, spry, energetic, and with two good knees. What is odd, I find, is that at Mont Tremblant the seniors’ discount for a season’s pass begins at 70; I assume the concession is for the arthritic knees.

Even the Canadian government is vague about who qualifies as a senior. You can collect your Canada Pension at 60 – or later. Old Age Security kicks in automatically at 65; but is 65 really ‘old age?’ I think not. I’m glad for the cash, nonetheless.

Let’s face it, the category ‘senior’ is almost as all-inclusive as one of those Caribbean beach resorts. First of all, it covers everyone from sexagenarians to centenarians; that’s quite a gap. And, clearly, as my colleague pointed out in his column, a recently-retired individual surrounded by family and friends, with a healthy mind, body, and bank account – considerable mobility, in other words — has very little in common with those who might be thirty years older, confined in some way, possibly alone, relying on a meager pension, and with serious health issues. Puzzling.

An older man I know, who was a serious hockey player in his day, ran his own hockey school for many years, and who played a lot of golf without ever taking a cart, is now having a lot of trouble with circulation in his legs. Walter has chronic pain and, well, it pains him deeply. He’s nonetheless a regular at the gym, shaking his head when he sees me: “They call these the Golden Years. Bah!”

This appellation ‘senior’ does have an upside, though. To me, at least, hearing it invokes thoughts of experience, survival, endurance, resilience, even the wisdom that comes with all they — we — have seen and done and heard. I tend to regard it as a badge of honour, even if some of us seniors humble ourselves occasionally and call on the aid of a youngster when it comes to downloading the latest online banking app.

When I think of my mother, and all that she has endured through her 90 years, I marvel that she retains such grace. It’s her middle name, after all. She lost her mother to cancer as a child, spent most of the Great Depression in an orphanage with her five brothers and younger sister, was kicked out of the house for dating, and ultimately marrying, my father, raised four kids – and took in numerous foster children – on very limited income, later worked 18-hour days in the family restaurant … I’m getting tired just thinking about it. And we’re both considered seniors.

Let’s face it, Indigenous people seem to have it right; they refer to their seniors as ‘elders.’ That’s a much more dignified term, and they have a lot to teach us about the respect that goes with it, I believe. As I understand it, elders in their communities are regarded as the bearers of wisdom, which has been accumulated through the experiences of a lifetime, as well as their peoples’ traditions, language, culture, and history. Their responsibility, it seems, is to pass along all of that knowledge to the younger people in their community, to serve as a living link to the past.

Because I’m the oldest among my group of friends, one of them calls me The Elder. I like that, even though she always says it with a smirk.

I really need to get better, maybe older, friends.

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