Shame on Writers Who Refer to Us as ElderlyI’m truly tired of seeing headlines that refer to active, older adults as “elderly.” Even the style guide for the American Medical Association now recommends against using that pejorative term. Recently, I saw an article that Time.com ran using the term “elderly” to describe a seventy-five-year-old protester. Other publications referred to the protester as “older.” I contacted the editors at Time magazine about the recent article describing a protester as elderly. I mentioned that the style guide for the American Medical Association advised against using the term “elderly” because it stereotyped groups of people. The style guide suggested using the term “older” rather than “elderly.”
The Term “Elderly” is Not NeutralAs an article in The Atlantic noted, the term “elderly” is hardly neutral. It is “often associated with frailty and limitation…” Another source suggested terms like “elderly” suggest physical incapacity and mental degeneration. “It would seem incongruous for your “elderly” aunt to take a spin class, but a bunch of older people getting together to pursue physical wellness and mental stimulation—that makes perfect sense!” A law dictionary described ‘elderly’ as a “person 60 years of age or older who is suffering from the infirmities of aging as manifested by advanced age or organic brain damage, or other physical, mental, or emotional dysfunction, to the extent that the ability of the person to provide adequately for the person’s own care or protection is impaired.” I have not met very many people over sixty who fit such a description.
“Elderly” Can Be an Offensive TermNumerous polls have found that the majority of older individuals find terms like “elderly” and “senior citizen” especially offensive. Some polls are now suggesting that using “older” is preferred as most of us. Other terms like “senior citizens” are definitely out. Interestingly, “senior citizen” is a term that emerged in the 1930s. It was used to describe places older people could go for lunch or to find something to do. According to the Social Security Administration, those who are now 65 have a one in three chance of living into their nineties. We are healthier and living longer than any other generation before us. We also have the greatest buying power of any age group right now. While it is true that almost all of us will face some decline, a growing number of older adults are living active, healthy lives into their eighties, nineties, and beyond. The language media and various organizations use to describe older adults help frame public perceptions. Using certain words that are associated with decline and frailty to broad-brush those of us who are not young is insulting and unwise.
Hall of ShameI plan to continue contacting editors of various publications when they run articles using “elderly” to broadly describe anyone who is not young. I am also considering adding a “Hall of Shame” page to my website in the future. If I do, I will list names of publications and businesses that use demeaning language or advertising to describe older adults. It’s time that we call out those who are reinforcing negative stereotypes about older adults. If you see examples of offensive terms to describe older adults in newspapers or other publications, consider contacting the editors and sending the examples you find to me.