Say "Elderly" at Your Own Risk
The first time someone referred to me as “elderly” I was 67 years old. I was shocked. Then outraged. Then frightened. How could this be? Hurled too soon into the eve of life by single word? I wasn’t ready for this at all.
The encounter occurred in a medical center as I scanned the chart notes written by a new doctor. “Carolyn is a very pleasant elderly female who I am seeing at the request of her primary care physician,” wrote the specialist after my initial visit to his office.
“Elderly? I don’t think so!” I blurted. OK, I was probably two decades older than this specialist, but “elderly?” I didn’t take it well—being branded with an identity that didn’t fit my self-image at all. I requested a copy of the notes. When they arrived in the mail, it was clear I’d made my point. Carolyn was now “a very pleasant 67-year-old female.” The offending word had been expunged.
Five years later, I’m still resisting the label. What’s the problem with “elderly?” I ask myself. Why does this particular word provoke a response so visceral? Doesn’t “elderly” stem, after all, from “elder,” a title of respect granted those who have attained experience, wisdom, and age?
Yet, I wince every time I bump into “elderly” applied to someone more or less my own age, or, heaven forbid, even younger. I’ve been simmering quietly, but it’s probably time to expose this struggle I’m having with the language of age. Especially since many of the unsettling encounters seem to come in newsprint.
Take the wire story in March about an avalanche in Montana, for example. A sub-head on the article in this newspaper identified three victims hospitalized by the incident as “an elderly couple and an 8-year-old boy.”
The text below identified the “elderly” couple as a retired university professor and spouse, ages 66 and 68. Perhaps, I thought, the word choice in this situation arose from an editor’s unconscious desire to make the event seem even more tragic. Still, it felt patronizing to me. That’s not the only collision with “elderly” I’ve encountered in local pages, but no need to belabor the point.
What is it about "elderly"
that brings a wince and a frown?
Am I simply being over sensitive and politically correct? Am I over-reacting? Does anyone else recoil from “elderly” as a dismissive label? Or, is it possible, as one argument suggests, that my opposition actually reveals my own ageist attitudes?
Could it be that my reluctance to embrace an “elderly” classification simply perpetuates our culture’s fetish with youth? Everyone wants to live a long life but no one wants to be old? I decided to seek the counsel of self-proclaimed Elders on this issue.
“I consider anyone older than I am to be elderly,” declared Elsie Rochna, 80. She laughed, and then continued. “Age is just a number,” she said. “How we handle our age is attitude. I know I am not elderly.”
Elsie is a member of the Elder Council that meets weekly at Eugene’s Unity of the Valley Church to discuss issues of aging. Ten women, 60 to 80, gathered the week I sought their views on the use of “elderly” as an apparent synonym for “someone older than I.”
Stories of personal encounters with “elderly” swirled around the table as these Elders shared experiences and opinions.
“When we started this group, part of the purpose was for us to figure out what this period of our lives was about,” said Bonnie Paquin, 63. “We don’t accept that someone outside can define us as elderly. Elderly means physical frailty.”
“Elderly definitely has a pejorative feel,” agreed Judy Richardson, 77.
“Elderly seems more a term for frailty rather than age,” offered Susan Smith, 70.
“I’m beginning to think elderly is politically incorrect,” said Ann Woeste, 78. “Let’s do away with elderly.”
Is “elderly” worse than
golden ager” or “senior citizen?”
What would they prefer to “elderly?” Is it any worse than golden ager, senior citizen, old person, or mature adult?
“We have childhood and adulthood,” Susan Smith observed. “Why not have elderhood next?”
“I’d rather just know the age,” said Christiana Dugan, 69. “Elderly could be someone 60 to 90. It’s a broad range.”
We meandered through possibilities and contemplated the pros and cons of descriptive age labels. Youthful is usually a compliment, for example. Childish often is not. Elder is considered a term of respect. Elderly is not. What determines the difference in how we react?
A bit of Internet research revealed that the “elderly” issue is far from new. I was just entering high school when a 1956 article in The Washington Post referred to a 40-year-old man as “elderly.” Even then the word drew angry protests from readers. Fifty years later, a headline in the same paper referred to a 68-year-old man as elderly, rousing an equally fervent round of indignation.
National Public Radio addressed the use of “elderly” not long ago after outraged listeners protested a 2013 broadcast that identified a 71-year-old midwife as “elderly.”
“She’s 71 and delivering babies,” one listener objected. “There’s nothing elderly about her, and these days, not even her age.”
“Elderly,” the NPR editors decided, has fallen out of grace. They cited similar language evolutions that have replaced retarded with mentally challenged and handicapped with disabled. Likewise, acceptable terms of racial and sexual identity have morphed over the years.
The problem with “elderly,” NPR editors explained, is that it creates a category of people that is impersonal – like “those people.” It fails to acknowledge individuality. But aren’t we all, in fact, members of groups and categories?
Demographers call my generation (1925-1945) the Silent Generation. It’s a group distinguished from the GI Generation that came before us (1901-1924) and the Baby Boomers that followed (1946-1964). I don’t find those definitions inflammatory or dismissive even though they fail to acknowledge the unique differences of the people within each category.
My dismay stems not from being grouped into a category that ignores my individuality. The problem with “elderly” is that it groups me not by age, but by the perception of someone outside the group. Most often, that’s someone years away from the shadowy passage that stretches between elder and elderly.
Carolyn Kortge is a former Register-Guard editor and writer and author of
The Spirited Walker and Healing Walks for Hard Times. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.