Grammar

Elderly, Senior, or Older People? Which is Better?

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The older we get the more we have to dodge a variety of terms meant to define us. But what’s the best way to describe older people?

You walk down the street and you see a white-haired person. What word comes to mind? There was a time when many considered them elderly. Then seniors or senior citizens became preferred. Now, older people may be best referred to as exactly that: older people.

From time to time, I refer to the Associated Press Stylebook on questions of word usage.

I base much of the style of this blog on AP Style, though I do deviate from it from time to time. I use AP Style in my real job, but there, I’m rarely allowed to deviate.

AP Style helps writers in the news business maintain some commonality of style to make sharing content among AP members easier. So I figured we could seek the guidance of the Stylebook to see what it might say about people with many years under their belts. Let’s consider some options.

Elderly

The Associated Press isn’t the only one to advise against using this word. Some people might be offended by the term. But beyond that, it’s a bit vague.

After all, how do you define an “elderly” person? Is that someone who’s 60 or up? Or maybe 62? Or 65? They say age is just a number, but there are times when we classify people based on age. In those cases, it may well seem like more than a number!

Many sources claim that anyone who reaches the age of 60 can be referred to as “elderly.”

But unless you ask someone’s age, how do you know that white-haired lady across the room is actually over 60? At best, without committing some impertinence, you’re guessing. And if you guess incorrectly, she might strike you with her umbrella.

Senior Citizens (or Seniors)

When we were in high school, we all wanted to reach that year. That meant we were in charge (or so we thought). The cycle begins again when we reach college.

But after college, no one wants to be a senior.

Senior citizens technically do have a specific age range. Many consider a senior to be 65 or older.

But that takes us back to the scene of the little old lady. What if she’s only 62? She might not qualify as a “senior citizen.” Out comes that umbrella again.

Too much uncertainty

You can’t even count on AARP to clarify things. The organization, whose initials stand for “American Associated of Retired Persons,” accepts 50-year-olds. I became eligible to join last year. I’m neither elderly nor a senior citizen.

I haven’t retired, either, for that matter.

And by the time I retire, I’ll probably be elderly and a senior citizen.

So that leaves us with Older People

You can’t say the phrase older people doesn’t seem vague, either.

But as The Atlantic puts it, “Older may be catching on because it seems to irritate the smallest number of people.” In fact, one of their writers conducted a poll and found that older people seemed to mind that term the least compared to the others.

The good book — The AP Stylebook, that is — says about it offers plenty of advice. In a nutshell, it urges writers to avoid phrases like seniors and elderly. When age is really relevant, AP says the writer should include the person’s actual age.

When age is really relevant but applies to a group of people, older people is a preferred term, but it’s best when not referring to specific people.

If you’re talking about a program designed for older folk, you should get specific. You should explain that the program is designed for people 65 or older or 60 or older.

The AP doesn’t mind the word elderly in headlines because of limited space. “But,” it says, “aim for specificity when space allows.”

By the time some of you reach that age bracket, there will surely be an entirely different “preferred” term. And we’ll be changing our writing patterns all over again.

But that’s just how language works, like it or not.

1 Comment

  1. Patrick, you should pull this post up and read it aloud. You’ll find that some small portions need a bit of tightening…

    But what you say is absolutely correct. People will surprise you, but then, being called “old”, “older”, “elderly” is a sticky wicket and for many, especially women, who in this American society, lose beauty and (as a result) power,is clearly an insult. I must stress that I don’t believe that, but I know all too often the typical reaction to what are seen as insensitive words. What are the right ones? I usually avoid labels and rely on the individual I’m dealing to apply the right word(s) to the situation.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.