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Successful aging: Let’s drop the old term ‘elderly’ and start using ‘elder’ for a new perspective

I recently had a conversation with a friend whose parents were retiring to Arizona. She referred to them as elderly. I asked their age. She replied, “They are 70 years old.” I was surprised that she described them as “elderly.” I am age 76 and just don’t identify with the term and would not want someone to describe me in that way. Is elderly a common and acceptable term to describe older people? What am I missing? N. N.

Dear N.N.

Words do matter. We have a problem when it comes to age-related terminology. We cannot agree on the meaning of “retirement,” “old,” “mature” and even “elderly.” The words have different meaning for different people, depending on their point of view, self-concept and societal and cultural backgrounds.

Here are some common definitions:

Most developed countries consider elderly to start at the age of 65, often depending on the age to receive pension benefits. For example, the U.S. government typically classifies people age 65 as elderly since that’s the required age to receive federal benefits such as Medicare and Social Security with reduced benefits. The United Nations defines people age 60 and above as older and, in turn, uses elderly as a descriptor as in “elderly consumers.” Elderly also is used to describe a group such as housing or recreational programs for the elderly. According to the Collins English Dictionary, the term “elderly” is considered a polite way to describe an older person.

There is a distinction between “elderly” and” elder.” Elderly is an adjective describing a person or group, in some cases with a negative connotation. Elder is a noun, referring to an older person who typically commands respect, depending on the culture and country. In ancient Rome, elders were considered a precious resource; elders are known to be respected in countries including Japan, China, India and Korea and among Native Americans. 

In the U.S., leaders in the field of aging are using the term “elder” in the most positive ways.

Here are just three examples:  

Chip Conley: He is an author, hospitality entrepreneur and former strategic advisor to Airbnb. In his book “Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder (Currency, 2018), Conley refers to “elderly” solely as the years lived on the planet; “elder” is what one has done with those years. Conley liberates the term “elder” from the stigma of “elderly” as noted in his book. He also launched the successful Modern Elder Academy in Baja, CA, a school dedicated to help people navigate midlife. 

Dr. William Thomas: As a geriatrician and founder of the Eden Alternative, Thomas advances the use of “elder” where communities protect, sustain and nurture the use of their “elder rich” resources to advance the good of all. He calls this type of community an “eldertopia.” In an Eden Alternative Blog, he suggests “elders have novel ways of approaching time, money, faith, childhood, and relationships and are capable of uniting us all with our shared past and future.”

Dr. Louise Aronson: She is a geriatrician and professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and uses the term “elder” in the title of her book, “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine and Reimagining Life” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). Aronson tells the story of Professor Guy Micco, who asked 16 medical students to write down the first words that came to mind when he used the word “old” in reference to a person. The responses included wrinkled, bent over, bald and white hair. Micco did the same exercise and substituted the word “elder.” Responses included respect, leader, power, money and knowledge. He feels the term “old” is too negative. A good substitute is “elder.”

People at different ages respond differently to the term “elderly.” As part of a research project in a gerontology program, elderly was acceptable to people age 54 and under. Those over age 55 viewed the word negatively.


Faith-based organizations use “elder” as a noun. In some Christian traditions, an elder is an ordained person filling preaching roles and pastoral offices. Another faith-based organization calls their older-adult group “Community of Elders,” emphasizing their wisdom and need for one another. 

N.N., thank you for your good question. Since “elderly” may suggest an image of decline rather than vitality, it may be timely to eliminate that term and instead use “elder.” We are elders…and proud ones at that. Stay safe and well. 

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on 


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