There was a time when the word elderly applied to people over 65, no one got offended, and life went on pretty much as it should from there.
Apparently, elderly is now out.
Consider the case of a 71-year-old midwife who complained, claiming to be “taken aback” by a headline about her that referred to her with the now-offensive E-word.
NPR published her story in a series about Americans who’d reached retirement age but were staying in the workforce instead. The story’s reporter didn’t refer to her as “elderly” in the story itself, but the headline writer came up with this:
For Elderly Midwife, Delivering Babies Never Gets Old.
I think that’s actually a very nice turn of phrase. She didn’t. After complaints, the headline was changed:
For Midwife, 71, Delivering Babies Never Gets Old.
Still clever, but apparently not ageist.
According to the World Health Organization, the debate over exactly which age qualifies as elderly has been going on for quite some time:
As far back as 1875, in Britain, the Friendly Societies Act, enacted the definition of old age as, “any age after 50”, yet pension schemes mostly used age 60 or 65 years for eligibility. (Roebuck, 1979). The UN has not adopted a standard criterion, but generally use 60+ years to refer to the older population (personal correspondence, 2001).
The American Association of Retired Persons, known more often as AARP, allows anyone to join its ranks at age 50, though now anyone can join at any age below 50 with what they call an “associate membership.” AARP gets around the elderly problem by using the word retired, then not caring at all whether any of their members are retired.
Why did elderly become so offensive? And what are we supposed to use instead?
I’m reminded of a great scene in All in the Family. Archie Bunker’s insurance company notifies him they’ve canceled his homeowner’s policy, and when his insurance agent explains the reason, that his neighborhood was rezoned as “high-risk,” there’s this exchange between the agent, Wendell and Archie’s son-in-law, Mike:
WENDELL: Your neighborhood now extends all the way to the river where, well, a lot of “high-risk” people live.
ARCHIE: Now wait a minute, what are you talking about, the “coloreds”?
MIKE: Black people.
WENDELL: We call them “Low-Income Socio-Economic Groups.”
ARCHIE: Yeah, everybody calls them something.
Racism through the eyes of social satire, of course, but it still serves as a perfect illustration of this age-old (pardon the expression) battle over titles.
NPR’s ombudsman — I want to be an ombudsman one day when I grow up — reached out to Columbia Journalism School, which suggested “older adults” as a better name. If my grandmother were still alive, she’d be 105…and I have no doubt that she’d jump up out of her chair, ready to give you a fight if you dared in any way to call her “old.”
Another source offered “seniors.” The Associated Press Style Guide warns, however, that “senior citizens” can be as problematic as “elderly” and that such words should only be used when pertinent to the story. (In this case, the 71-year-old’s status was the story.)
Then there’s the term “elders,” which suddenly seems to be okay, in a “Respect your elders” way.
But wait a second: are we to believe that these “seniors” won’t mind being called “elders” when they get so worked up about being called “elderly”?
Completely missed in this silly little controversy, of course, is the fact that there are more and more people who’ve reached the traditional retirement age but who haven’t retired. Is that a good thing, because they’re so much more healthy than they used to be that they want to keep working? Or is it a bad thing, because the economy is so bad for our “older” population that they can’t afford not to work?
The fight began at the headline. Who bothered reading the story?
I suspect that if I’m still working at a job I love when I’m 71, and I’m healthy enough to still be able to work, I might just be happy enough with living life that I won’t allow myself to be “taken aback” by something so relatively unimportant.
At some point, we all need to just get over it. When such a title is clearly not being used in a disrespectful manner, but rather a meaningful way to classify people for a legitimate reason, as it was in this case, we should expect to be able to do so without everyone getting into a fight.
How do you refer to people who might qualify as “seniors” or the “elderly”? If you were in that group, what would you prefer, or would you have a preference at all?