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Successful Aging: Misuse of the term ‘elderly’ seems to be an age-old problem

Question: About a week ago, I was in Costco to get my flu shot. I filled out the form at the pharmacy counter and the clerk said to me: “I see you are 78. We recommend a higher dose for the ‘elderly.’ ” She asked for my Medicare card and spoke very slowly and distinctly: “It’s ... the ... red ... and ... blue ... card.” Which I didn’t have since my husband works for the state of California and doesn’t pay into Medicare. And then added: “I am so glad your insurance covers this because it so important for the elderly to get the high dose.” I am not “elderly.” What else could I do but laugh?

— E.S.

Answer: Dear E.S.,

Good thing you have a sense of humor.

The term “elderly” has gotten a lot of attention and is considered one of the most commonly misused terms.

Words matter. That’s one of the likely reasons that in 2009 The International Longevity Center-USA and Aging Services of California published a media guide on aging. It was distributed to 10,000 journalists, film and television producers and other media professionals.

The No. 1 lesson was to eliminate the word “elderly.” According to the guide, the term is appropriate only in generic phrases such as “concern for the elderly.” It is not appropriate in describing individuals or using the word as a substitute for “old.”

The use of such terminology may depend on one’s age. In a survey by a university gerontology program, “elderly” was acceptable to those 54 and younger while those 55 and older viewed it negatively as noted in the media guide.

Professional organizations publish guidelines on what to call this older demographic. The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing notes that “elderly” implies feebleness to some. The handbook suggests researchers use more accurate descriptions such as “65 years and older, retirees or even octogenarians.”

Professional journals in aging specifically avoid using the term “old” to describe individuals. And then there is the conversation about when to include age in a story. According to the Washington Post style manual, age should only be used when it is relevant. The manual warns journalists to be aware of using adjectives such as “elderly” and “middle aged,” indicating that “younger reporters especially tend to use these words about people who would not appreciate them.” Older NPR listeners disliked almost all substitutes for “old” with a few exceptions. Based on a poll of 2,700 listeners, the most-liked term was “older adult” at 43 percent. About one-third liked “elder” and almost a third liked “senior.” Only 12 percent liked “senior citizen.” Terms that were loathed were “geezer,” “old timer” and “elderly.”

Some expressions that even seemed positive such as “successful aging” or “positive aging” got a thumbs down from a majority of listeners. Here are some relatively new age-related terms I have found useful.

Longevity revolution: Long life is a major factor influencing everything from public policy and employment to technology and travel. It is broader than the concept of a retirement revolution. The late noted geriatrician Dr. Robert N. Butler used the “Longevity Revolution” as the title for his book (PublicAffairs, 2008).

Longevity economy: This represents the sum of all economic activity serving the needs of Americans over 50. It includes products and services they purchase and all additional economic activity this spending generates. It is responsible for at least $7.1 trillion in annual economic activity according to AARP.

New life stage: I often use this term instead of “the retirement years.” The new life stage usually refers to ages 60 to 85 and has no agreed upon name. Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson said it well, indicating that we haven’t added 20 years to the end of life, but to the middle of life. It’s that middle piece that is new with no name.

Searching for a proper word describing an older person is a daunting quest ... and it should be, writes Julia Keller, formerly with the Chicago Tribune. People in the upper decades of life have volumes of varied experiences. She suggests it is unrealistic to find one word that would be inclusive of this tremendously diverse older population and adds, “The fact that most every label for older folks feels wrong is ... perfectly right.”

E.S., I guess we have no single acceptable name for the older demographic and perhaps we never will. And maybe that’s OK. Many thanks for your good question and keep that sense of humor. We all need it, at least for awhile.

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