How Old is ‘Elderly’?
Apparently, it's higher than 67.
I found the anecdotal lede to the CNN report that more Americans are getting COVID boosters than first doses somewhat amusing:
Mark Warschauer, a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, was “tremendously excited” about the authorization of Covid-19 vaccines, and happy when he became eligible to get his first doses.
And he was at the front of the line to get a booster, too.”We were very concerned about Covid,” he told CNN.
“I’m not elderly, but at the age of 67 I knew there was a substantial risk of hospitalization and even death from Covid. So I got my vaccine at the earliest possible date.”
I’m sure Warschauer is still quite active and mentally sharp but by what definition of “elderly” is 67 not included?
A 2013 NPR report (“An Age-Old Problem: Who Is ‘Elderly’?“) notes that this has long been a sticky issue for journalists.
A recent New York Times story calls a 69-year-old woman elderly. Philadelphia Metro considers 70 to be elderly. When NPR ran a story recently about a 71-year-old midwife, some readers objected to the word “elderly” in the original headline.
One commenter responded: “REALLY?!? ‘ELDERLY MIDWIFE’?! She’s 71 and delivering babies! There’s nothing elderly about her, and these days, not even her age!”
Another wrote: “I was 70 in Feb and I certainly do not feel elderly … Elderly is at least over 80 and as someone else suggested maybe 95.”
Just how old is elderly? “Rather old,” according to Merriam-Webster, who doesn’t really help matters. “Being past middle age.”
Elderly is an old adjective dating back hundreds of years. It comes from an even older noun, elder, which the Oxford English Dictionary traces to the 10th century and defines as “in a wider sense, a predecessor, one who lived in former days.”
In many circles, the word “elder” is a vaunted title of veneration. We are told to respect our elders. We look up to elder statesmen. We bow down before tribal elders.
The word was not always so objectionable. In early 20th century America, “elderly” was socially preferable to the word “old.”
“We like your use of the word elderly,” observed Atlanta Constitution advice columnist Dr. William Brady in 1918. “Maybe we would have more friends now if we had not insisted upon anything old when we meant elderly.”
But by 1956, some Americans were bristling at the description. When a 20-year-old girl referred to a 40-year-old man as “elderly” in a Washington Post story, readers reacted. The paper published the executive editor’s advice to his staff about usage of the word. “A lot of us old folks in our 50s do not like to be called elderly,” the editor opined. “When you are a great deal older than you are now, you will discover that the time a man becomes elderly is exactly like the place where the earth and sky meet.”
He added, “When you are 16 you wonder how an old man of 30 manages to drag himself around. When you get to be 30 you feel that 60 is as old as Methuselah. When you get to be 60 you will think that the ‘aged’ are those in their 90s.”
A contemporaneous piece by the network’s ombudsman (“Let Me Live Long, But Don’t You Dare Call Me Old“) sparked by the kerfuffle over the midwife, quotes the AP Stylebook:
elderly Use this word carefully and sparingly. Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the story.
It is appropriate in generic phrases that do not refer to specific individuals: concern for the elderly, a home for the elderly, etc.
If the intent is to show that an individual’s faculties have deteriorated, cite a graphic example and give attribution for it. Use age when available and appropriate.
Apply the same principle to terms such as senior citizen.
Although neither of those rules would have helped in the case in question, as the whole point of the story was that the midwife was still going strong at 71, long after the traditional retirement age.
He also reported that various other euphemisms—“older adults,” “seniors.” and “elders”—were considered preferable and that marketing types advised “For heavens’ sake, don’t call them anything.” The latter is safe but, alas, rather unhelpful.
At 55, I’m maybe a decade out from being at an age for which no description apparently exists. Right now, I’m comfortably into “middle age,” which itself seems to be starting a decade later than it did when I was younger. But, while I expect to still be working full time and hope to still be active at 65, “middle age” seems an odd way to describe being older than my paternal grandfather was and just a year younger than my father was when they died. Few folks, indeed, live to be 130.
Like James Russell Wiggins, the above-referenced 1956 WaPo executive editor, I suspect “elderly” is very much like “rich.” The answer is always a number higher than oneself.
Careful who you call elderly. You need to be at least 5 years older than me to be elderly. And yes the 5 year requirement is consistent over time. Plus you need to start having old folks issues.
Now where did I put my coffee cup?
Off on the MC, have a good day all.
I did recently have the experience of opening an article where the headline referred to an elderly person, who turned out to be just 65, and I found that a bit strange.
Since headlines attempt to grab readers’ attention, they tend to play loosely with people’s expectations of the connotations of words with imprecise definitions. One example I’ve noticed over the years is the way they use the word “most.” I’ll see a headline that says something like “Most Americans oppose raising the debt limit,” and it turns out to be no more than 57%. But I haven’t seen any articles claiming that most Republicans have gotten the Covid vaccine or acknowledged that Biden won the election, even though both are in fact above 50%. That’s where the headline writers’ biases begin to show, as they are reluctant to use the word “most” when the percentage is far lower than they think it ought to be.
How Old is ‘Elderly’?
My age on any given day +1.*
When you have one foot in the grave.
Whichever comes first.
*(b. Jan. 1948)
At the same time, the age to qualify for “senior” discounts seems to be getting younger and younger. Now it’s….fifty.
Used to get this a lot from patients – “I’m not elderly! X isn’t that old!!” Yes it is. Just because society is letting people live longer doesn’t mean the concept of elderly gets pushed back. That’s purely an ego driven conceit rather than a medical one. Elderly has a biological and medical meaning that doesn’t change just because you can now live in that particular state longer. It’s only offensive because it means you’re old but guess what, you are! Being a healthy, fit 70 doesn’t change the fact you’re 70 with all the associated risk factors, problems and issues that can strike like a lightening bolt from the blue.
Perhaps a poor analogy but HIV comes to mind – it used to be a sure death sentence with a short affliction time that science has now mitigated and extended by years. It no longer kills you in weeks after suffering massive degeneration and illness like it did but with proper care and treatment you can live your live normally and no one could notice for decades. However, that doesn’t change your medical status and needs; you’ll still be HIV+ 5 years later even if you feel fine with the same risks and more as the infection. Complaining that you shouldn’t be referred to in any sort of way as HIV+ because you’re “healthy” or “fine” completely misses the point that it’s a medical state that requires specific care and monitoring for when you become *not* fine.
We like to pretend that since we can now live in the 90s regularly that means we’ll be as fit and spry in our 60’s as we were in our 30s. It’s a lie and science / medicine shouldn’t be the business of peddling lies. If you’re still going strong at 71, good for you but don’t ignore the fact that in a few mere months, you could be one of the frail elderly you dismiss as your decline would be rapid instead of gradual.
So does “retarded.” We often move on from certain words when they acquire enough insulting connotations, even if they have objective scientific definitions.
It’s a condition, not an age.
My wife is 68. There’s no question that she’s elderly, or at least rapidly getting there: severe osteoarthritis, cataracts that will need surgery within a year, balance bad enough to pay attention to, dementia-associated memory loss, and intestinal issues that are making it more difficult for her to keep weight on.
I’m six months younger by the calendar. No signs of joint issues. Vision is off a touch, but I still qualify to drive w/o glasses. Still strap the bicycle on and do 20 miles with no worries about falling. I can’t hold as many details about a piece of code I’m working on in my head at once, but I still write complicated code. My weight problem is the opposite, so I’m clearly absorbing enough calories.
Reckless speeding is two miles an hour faster than me, and elderly is two years older.
At age 16 you hear someone in their 50s died, and you think “Well they had a long life.”
At age 50 you hear someone in their 70s died, and you think “What happened? Some freak accident? Were they shot?”
@Michael Cain: This is kind of how I think about it, too.
There is clearly a dictionary definition of “elderly” and then there is the way it has come to be perceived. “Elderly” connotes to me “frail” and visibly aged. And it is situational. And in some ways a state of mind. My grandmother, who lived to her mid-90s, could have easily been described as “elderly” (even though she was quite healthy) in her 60s. But I work with people in their mid-70s that I don’t think of as “elderly.”
My Dad turns 80 this year and while he is clearly older, the adjective that comes to mind is not “elderly.”
@CSK: That makes for an interesting point of comparison: you say “senior” and not “senior citizen”–because like with this conversation about “elderly” people didn’t like being called “senior citizen.”
I suppose the main problem is that none of us want to be reminded of our mortality.
@Steven L. Taylor:
I think they used to be called “senior citizen” discounts. Now they’re just “senior” discounts. Perhaps that sounds less old? After all, you can be a high school senior.
@CSK: That was what I was getting at–“senior” just sounds better–at least until we decide it doesn’t 😉
And then the new term runs into the same problem because the attitude towards the concept is the issue, not the wording being inherently offensive. Look at the debate on “autistic” vs “person with autism” – incredibly similar and yet a fierce debate as person-first language deems one to be offensive due to how language works. How about “geriatric maternity”? Like it or not, there’s a definite age past where women having children becomes more dangerous. Offensive yes but practical – “mother past age of 35” is unwieldy to use and still carries the age stigma that was being protested. Is “geriatric” the best word to use? Meh – is there a better one that conveys the same meaning without bogging down communication? Oh yeah, “elderly”…..
“Elderly” being an subjective offensive term is a function of ego. 70 is nearly 3/4 of a century old and we’d describe virtually everything but ourselves in terms that emphasis it’s age. Calling someone “senior” still runs into the same problem. We don’t really have any good, potentially non-offensive terms that don’t refer age in some fashion that’s not flattering. “Ancient”? “Advanced age”? “Pensioner” or “retiree”? What exactly are we supposed to use to reference a very obvious and relevant fact about the group in question? We can’t just pretend clocking multiple decades of living on this planet isn’t a salient fact in everything from health to politics.
What term could we possibly use in place of “elderly” that won’t offend when the whole point is you don’t think you qualify at all? We already lost “geriatric” and we’re running out of English – we’ll either need to invent a new term or end up cycling back once “senior” becomes too impolite.
@Steven L. Taylor:
It’s always sounded silly to me–and condescending. When I was a teenager, there was a group of, ah, older people who went on bus trips together. They called themselves “The Golden Agers.”
At 67 and still working full time (a condition I would like to change), I am only elderly when I suggest to my adult children that they should be picking up the tab more often.
Seriously, I view the term elderly as a physical description term not a general one. My Mom passed away at 88 and really never view her as elderly because she was physically active up until the end. She was actually shoveling snow the day before she passed. As someone suggested, maybe the term is obsolete.
Yes, it’s what linguists have called the euphemism treadmill.
There’s no such thing as “running out of English.” The language will continue to supply whatever new words (or old words used in new ways) its speakers want. This has been going on forever.
So… you’re saying a 36-year-old woman is “elderly”?
You’ve latched on to “elderly” as something medical. It’s not. 99.44% of the time we’re not referring to a person’s increased potential of age-related medical conditions. We’re just talking about them being “old”. And that is entirely subjective.
So what if the term keeps changing? We’ve done that with all sorts of things. Negro –> colored –> black –> African-American –> person of color –> black –> ??
It’s English. It evolves.
What’s more is that the term isn’t MEANT to be insulting. It’s not a slur like the n-word. It’s a descriptor like “blonde” or “tall”. Nobody’s going around pointing fingers and chanting “Elderly! Elderly!” at folks like with the r-word. It’s a basic description of what you are and there’s no mean or harsh implications intended….. but that’s not what the listener hears. Elderly being offensive is purely a “how DARE you!!” offensive instead of an active insult.
Nope. I’m elderly.
Again, I do not see how this is any different from other word changes. “Retarded” didn’t start out as an insulting term, either. It was introduced around the turn of the 20th century as a substitute for terms like “moron” and “imbecile,” which incredibly were once technical terms for people of specific levels of lower-than-average IQs. But the word “retarded” literally just meant slowed down; it hadn’t been used to denote low intelligence prior to that point, so it was actually a respectable substitute to those earlier terms. It was only over time that people began using it in an insulting manner, and that’s where you get the slur “retard” or the expression “That’s retarded.”
Of course this isn’t a perfect analogy. “Elderly” isn’t as insulting as “retarded” (and that’s partly because, despite ageism, our culture has more respect for the elderly than it does for the intellectually disabled). But it has acquired negative connotations over the years.
In terms of maternity, yes. If you are 35+ and having kids, you’re old for it. Biology doesn’t change because social attitude get snippy about it. You’ll still have the same increased risk factors for mother and child because advanced age is a definite factor. The term used to be “geriatric” as the medical term but again, was deemed offensive. Now “elderly” is too apparently. Again, not an insult but reflection of reality.
Even if we can’t accept “elderly” in the context of health, we’re not going to accept it in broader social terms. If it becomes an unacceptable term in society, that’s going to affect it in it’s technical usage as well. Softening the language isn’t going to change that “old” is increasingly becoming a period of life we’re spending time in. It used to be youth predominated our life span, with middle age taking up a good chunk and the rest being a short stay. As that allotment redistributes, we keep thinking that means youth and middle age get longer so the time spent as old says short. We want to keep that schema even if it’s unfeasible – in 2080, will 90 be the new 70 as we push lifespans further and further?
Perhaps we can invent and popularize a 4th phase of life – youth, middle age, X, elderly. Instead of pandering to age denial, just create the new word and concept then run with it. You’re not elderly, you’re X!
And that’s my point – it’s *not* being using in an insulting manner right now. We simply haven’t gotten to that point in the language cycle. Calling someone “elderly” isn’t a dig at them – you’d call them “old fart” or something much stronger. What’s happening is preemptive offensive – the term is being deemed rude without people using in the rude fashion we’ve seen other discontinued words acquire.
It simply doesn’t have the sting other pejoratives have. It’s not someone talking sh^t about you or mocking you in any way – it’s you have a personal problem with the fact that you’re getting older and closer to death. That’s a you problem, not a societal problem. There’s a reason people roll their eyes about this – not everyone will experience the discrimination of being a minority and insulted but everyone grows old. Being sensitive about your age is a trope for a reason. Doesn’t’ make “elderly” insulting though….
I unilaterally classified my age on a no-one-needs-to-know basis (pretty self-explanatory). I tell people I stopped counting when I reached 18, the legal age in my time, because what was the point of keeping track past that? the truth is I don’t keep track.
Take the recent COVID vaccine. I had to state my age in the form, and I got it wrong for the first dose by one year. Why? I miscounted when I calculated it from my birth year (really), because I don’t keep track.
But I do notice that I prefer an earlier bedtime, and I can’t stay up much past that on weekends, and pulling an all-nighter at work leaves me drained, and I plan shopping trips to minimize stops, and sometimes I’d rather browse products online than in person, and so on.
My 79 year old father was offended when he read medical advice for the “elderly” and realized it included him. His 99 year old mother is elderly, he said, but he is not. I figure this means I’m just barely adult at 53.
These things exists on a spectrum. The negative connotations of the word “elderly” are relatively mild, but they still exist, which is why many people resist the term and use substitutes like senior citizen.
James, not sure if you are on the Social Security path or the Government Pension path, but for those on SS, full benefits retirement age is now 68, and you can get additional benefits if you work longer. 71 is no longer “long past” retirement age.
I’m the same way. I have to do the math–and then I usually round to the nearest whole number. 🙂
For me, birthdays are a purely legal thing–and there are only 5 of them. In the US:
16 you can drive
18 you can vote
21 you can drink
26 (for men) you can’t be drafted
65 you can retire (though… I think that’s changed now)
No. It won’t–because you’re not defining the condition by the word. You can call that stage of life “purple”, and as long as all medical persons understand what “purple” means, it’s fine.
People no longer die of “consumption”, they die from TB. Medicine changed the word they used to describe the condition.
And, for what it’s worth, I’ve never heard a medical professional refer to someone as “elderly”. It’s always “older” or “of advanced age” or “in their 70s”.
@KM: I think that a lot of it is denial and a fair piece more is relativity–60 is the new 40 and such. An additional factor is that with the rise in coverage by health insurance and so many systems running as HMOs rather than FFS systems we’re delaying the onset of some debilitating conditions–your doctor doesn’t wait until your first heart attack to start paying attention to how it’s working. Additionally, larger numbers in the population are taking better medications, and fewer of us are working 4o or more years swinging a hammer like our friend Ozark, slinging around heavy items in warehouse work, and other types of work that were more physically demanding. These things all total up.
As for me, I’m not having a “70 is the new 50” experience although the change has come on very suddenly, so go ahead and call me old if you want to. The prognosis when I was one was that I was gonna be gone 30 or so years ago if I lived that long. “Better living through chemistry” has been very good to me.
The old pension track ended for those starting service on 1 January 1987. Since then, it’s been a hybrid system consisting of a defined benefit plan, a 401k-type plan, and Social Security.
Someone who was 71 in 2013, the year the article was written, would have been born in 1942 and eligible for full retirement at 65 and change. So maybe 71 isn’t “well” beyond retirement age but we’d have certainly expected a midwife to have been retired; her working was noteworthy because of that fact.
Those of us born after 1960 bore the brunt of the 1983 change but I was still in high school when that law passed, so had time to adjust! Still, I can retire at “full” benefits at 67.
It’s true that there is some advantage to postponing collection past 65, in that there’s a modest annual increase in payout. But that’s offset by a year fewer payouts and the fact that we have no idea how long we have.
@CSK: Where I live they’re called “distinguished citizen” discounts. Then again about 70% of the population is older than 60 also. And it’s a majority GQP county, so probably a lot of people are touchy.
I’m 75. Call me elderly if you want; it’s not a problem for me. I can’t run as fast/far as I once could. My vision, hearing, and balance are shot. I am still having fun. Life is good. Caring about trivial labels is also declining.
@Mu Yixiao: You can still retire at 62 (I was reminded of that in a letter that arrived for me in Korea from the Social Security Administration). The bigger difference is that with the advent of business mergers that led to boards deciding “the pension fund will look better as bonuses for board members; let’s liquidate it,” many people don’t have the resources to retire at all. The problem is undoubtedly all the money that those people wasted feeding and housing their families instead of building a nest egg of their own.
Me too, as long as I am getting one of those discounts CSK was talking about upthread.
Call me elderly, why would I care?
Here we go with magic words again. Ooooh, let’s call them pre-old, or post-young, or molting reptiles, or geezers, or the chronically stiff, what does it matter? Granted I’ve had a weird life, but having at various times been Michael, Michel, Alex, Carter and David, with titles ranging from Suspect to Janitor to Bestselling Author, I’ve found that none of it matters to me. On my knees scraping shit out of someone’s toilet, or in a New Zealand opera house facing 900 fans, I somehow remain me.
When you care what you’re called, you signal weakness, and you surrender power over your life to other people. Call me whatever, sticks and stones, etc…
Also, I don’t take senior discounts*. They’re absurd. We are the richest generation in the country, and we get the discounts? Give the savings to working people.
*If you need them, no problem.
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
Like I said, changing “elderly” to “senior” isn’t going to cut it anymore since “senior” still implies you’re old. The second enough people qualify for “distinguished”, it will gain the same negative connotation. Even a flattering description will be seen as insulting if you utterly reject the notion behind the appellation. You could call it “serene majesty” discounts but it’s still the same thing – money off specifically because of your advanced age so you must be old to qualify.
They used to call them “early bird specials” as you got the discount if you showed up earlier then the dinner rush. Nothing associating with it age specifically and nothing negative right? Sounds like an industrious or thrifty person’s deal to avoid the crowds! ……except most people would be working or in school so only a retiree or older person could reliably use them and thus the association tainted the word. What’s negative about it? Old people do it mostly so it must be an “elderly” thing instead of something old people take advantage of more than most.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s not an insult or degrading comment on a person. Yes it can be used that way but for the vast, vast majority of usage it’s simply acknowledging a fact of life: you’re old now and that actually does mean something in reality. What kind of old may differ, how it’s treating you and how you perceive it are a personal thing but in the end complaining about the term won’t change a damn thing. Life’s too short to care about someone noticing you’ve burned though a good chunk of it.
@James Joyner: According to the quick estimate, if I retire at 70 rather than my full benefit at 67, that’s worth an extra $9600 a year, which seems worthwhile. My wife is the same age so I assume that would be an extra $20K between the two of us.
Look, the term is geriatric millennial, not elderly millennial.
@MarkedMan: Yeah, almost exactly the same for me. But it requires forgoing $108,540 over those three years so I’d need to live another 11 years just to break even. And that’s not factoring in inflation.
@Steven L. Taylor:..I suppose the main problem is that none of us want to be reminded of our mortality.
I’ll take that reminder every morning when I wake up. Otherwise I’d be dead.
Like others, I tend to view ‘elderly’ as a comment on one’s overall physical/mental condition. My mom has been ‘elderly’ since she was around 62. My dad was spry until he was diagnosed with cancer at 70. He took care of her until she had to start taking care of him, and then the caregiving passed to me around 2009.
Regarding retirement, I plan to file for retirement from the college the very first day TRS says I qualify. I expect that to be in about 10 years, when I am 60 or 61. And then I plan to grab Social Security at 62, even though the math hypothetically says I should wait. (At my employer, we make full contributions to both.)
I watched both my parents lose the ability to live life entirely on their terms much earlier than they expected. A decade-plus of caregiving has drained me, and I’m also diabetic.
I refuse to hold off on living life on my own terms as early as possible just for the sake of a hypothetical higher payout that I may not even live to enjoy.
Reminds me of a bit of dialogue from The High Cost of Living (an issue of Gaiman’s “Sandman.”). Death comes early for someone and they complain that they didn’t get enough time and it wasn’t fair. Death’s response:
“You get what anyone gets. You get a lifetime.”
The age of decrepitude however varies with the abuse one’s body has been subjected to. I am 63 and about to undergo my 3rd shoulder surgery in less than 10 years.
Many of those rapidly approaching 70 were admonished in their 20s never to trust anyone over 30. It’s disconcerting.
As a meme pointed out, were are now as close to 1980 as 1980 was to 1939.
@JKB: The man who once sang “I hope I die before I get old” is now 77.
The guy who apparently first said “Never trust anyone over 30” is now 81.
@JKB: @Kylopod: Well, I would never trust me.
Based on this comment section, you’re all definitely elderly.
It’s like going to dinner with my parents and some of their friends where I have to sit there silently while they talk to each other about their colons for three solid hours.
That’s similar to the way the term “boomer” is increasingly used as a way to suggest someone is old in spirit regardless of their actual age or generation.
@Stormy Dragon:..I have to sit there silently…
This is just one reason that I eat alone at home.
The other is that I would much rather watch Law and Order DVDs while I dine than listen to a review of anyone’s hospital chart.
I mean, I could join in, I’m just not interested in sharing any colon issues I may or may not be having with the public.
@Stormy Dragon:..I could join in…
As long as my hemorrhoids are sleeping I’m a happy guy.
Yeah, but is he old?
Getting pissed or weirded out because someone somewhere said 65+ is elderly is so fucking retarded. Wink.
Oh my golly the journey that the word “retarded” in American English has had in my lifetime. Wild swings in usage and connotation.
I’m just miffed that Reynolds beat to reviving the word ‘geezer’ in this thread.
I kinda want to be a spinster
Which is actually offensive for a whole different reason, stereotyping members of a particular profession…
What is the male equivalent to “spinster”? Geezer, probably. In the US at least. In the UK “geezer” has a different connotation.
Fogy preceded by old (or fogey, the spelling is not settled), perhaps.
I am approaching geezerhood. Geezer has an interesting etymology.