Who are YOU calling Elderly?
Almost 15 years ago now, I introduced my grandmother to my best friend. A few weeks later, I was visiting with my grandmother and she asked me “How is your Negro friend?” OK hold onto that shock. The feeling you’re feeling right now. The thought of “How? What? It’s the 21st century why would anyone say that?! She must be a racist!” I was shocked and I thought my grandmother was racist after I heard that. When I expressed that to her she was mortified. Born in 1931 that was what they called Black people. It was as common as calling a black person black and a white person white. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the term “Black person/people” began to circulate as the politically correct term. Fast-forward to 2004 or 2005, and the term was still being used and considered OK by some.
What does this have to do with being ‘old’? Well, the purpose of that story was to make a point. My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was a wonderful, loving, woman. She loved my best friend! Today, many of us are using offensive terms to refer to those over the age of 65. I believe that 99.9% of those people using the offensive terms truly do not know better. So, let’s talk about it! Knowledge is power, folks!
Here are some of the common terms used to refer to those over the age of 65:
- Senior/Senior Citizens
- Older/Aging Adult
I want you to think about the following term: ELDERLY. Close your eyes and imagine elderly for about 10 seconds………..
…. Keep thinking about it…. Be totally honest with yourself….
Ok. Now, which of the pictures below most looks like what you were imagining in your mind?
Both of these men are over the age of 75. The person on the right is actually my friend’s dad, Dave. The picture was taken on his 76th birthday! He definitely is not what I imagine when I hear the term “elderly.” He is actually very energetic, engaging, and active. He is healthier than most 60 year olds I know! The man on the right is a stranger and he doesn’t even seem “elderly” to me (but he is more so what I would imagine when hearing that term).
That’s a simple one! See why that term just simply doesn’t work? Take this word out of your vocabulary. PLEASE! In some cultures, it is appropriate and necessary to refer to someone as an “elder” (such as Asian culture) but in most cultures it isn’t appropriate. And Elderly is just never appropriate.
This is one of the most popular terms to use and every time someone uses it another Gerontologist dies. Just kidding….but I think all Gerontologists would agree we hate this year. Children are not freshmen citizens, teenagers are not sophomore citizens, adults are not junior citizens, and adults over the age of 65 are not senior citizens. Companies are using this word to advertise Assisted Living communities as a marketing tool. But it is no longer politically correct. Please save Gerontologists like myself and stop using this word too!
Older Adult/Aging Adult
So by now you’re probably thinking “What the heck do I call my grandmother, then?” Well, according to the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the ASA Connection you should be using the terms Older Adult or Aging Adult.
The American Psychological Association states in Section 2.17 Age, (p 69):
“Elderly is not acceptable as a noun and is considered pejorative by some as an adjective. Older person is preferred. Age groups may also be described with adjectives: gerontologists may prefer to use combination terms for older age groups (young-old, old-old, very old, and oldest old), which should be used only as adjectives. Dementia is preferred to senility; senile dementia of the Alzheimer’s type is an accepted term.”
The American Medical Association states in Inclusive Language Section, 9.10.3 (p 268):
Age.–Discrimination based on age is ageism, usually relevant to older persons. Avoid using age descriptors as nouns because of the tendency to stereotype a particular group as having a common set of characteristics. While in general the phrase the elderly should be avoided, use of the elderly may be appropriate (as in the impact of Medicare cuts on the elderly, for example). Otherwise terms such as older person, older people, elderly patients, geriatric patients, older patients, aging adult, or the older population are preferred.
The ASA Connection reported the following responses to the question “What terms do you think are appropriate when referring to people ages 65-plus?”
Older adults: 80%;
Senior citizens: 11%;
(Respondents were able to select more than one answer).
Older Adult and Aging adult are the least offensive terms when referring to someone over the age of 65. This term is general enough to address a larger population of 65 and older (Young-old (ages 65-74), Old-old (ages 75-84), and Oldest-old (ages 85+).
Changing the terms
In 2013 I gave a presentation about Alzheimer’s disease to an Adult Day Center in Southeast, DC. It was a group of black men and women over the age of 65. One woman raised her hand and asked, “Is this a negro disease?” I was shocked that she referred to herself as that. She may not have liked it, but it was what she knew to be “right” because of time period she grew up in. (For the record, the answer to her question is “no.”)
My wonderful grandfather passed away a year ago. He and I had a discussion and although he often referred to himself as a “senior” he didn’t care for the term but didn’t know what else to call himself. Well first I told him to call himself “Poppy or Mike” depending on who he’s talking to. Then, I explained some of the newer terminology.
So here are some rules of thumb:
- Always refer to the person by their name first and foremost.
- Identify them by age if they’re comfortable with it (Mike, an 86-year-old man…)
- Don’t assume the person is comfortable with a term just because they’re using it.
- Consider cultural practices when using terminology. Ask if there is a term that they prefer if you’re not sure.
The terms we use to refer to a population are important for changing the way we view the process of aging. Using politically correct words will ensure respect for the aging population. Using the wrong terminology will promote a mentality of anti-aging. I hope that this post helped you understand how the terminology we are using contributes to ageism and that you can now intentionally choose different terminology, rather than unintentionally using the wrong terminology. If you want to learn more about how to age healthily, check out my post Resisting the Weight of Aging. With that said, Happy Aging everyone!