I was recently involved in a minor dust up on Twitter regarding the use of the word “elderly.”
Over the years I have evolved from using that word routinely to avoiding it completely.
Why the change? It’s simple really:
- The word contains only negative meanings and connotations and has no positive dimensions.
- Older people almost never use the word to refer to themselves.
- The word amplifies decline and dimisses the potential for growth.
In my view the word “elderly” and the word “retards” function in the
same manner, they both demean and stigmatize PEOPLE.
From a news item…
Detectives hunting a cashpoint con gang have released CCTV stills of suspects after they struck again. The group has been seeking out elderly victims in Manchester city centre, hovering around them to watch the PIN number being typed in before claiming there is a problem with the machine.
Reread that passage with this change…
Detectives hunting a cashpoint con gang have released CCTV stills of
suspects after they struck again. The group has been seeking out
retarded victims in Manchester city centre, hovering around them to
watch the PIN number being typed in before claiming there is a problem
with the machine.
Elderly need to be monitored during cold weather snaps.
Reread that passage with this change…
Retards need to be monitored during cold weather snaps.
@LouiseAronson asked: “If you no longer use the word ‘elderly’– what word or words do you use?
American English offers a limited set of possibilities. I think of people living life in stages and therefore I refer to…
People who are living in childhood as children.
People who are living in adulthood as adults.
People who are living in elderhood as elders.
An elder is a person who is living in elderhood. The problem, of course, is that American society has little awareness of elderhood as a distinct stage of life.
A back up plan involves referring to older people as “people who are older” and “older people.”
The word “seniors” is also effective, not too stigmatized and evocative of a range of meanings both positive and negative.
I always try to place the emphasis on the “person” and let the age signifier be subordinate to personhood.
There will be a flowering of new and better language in this arena in the years to come.
Sherry Reinbold says
I have never viewed the term elderly as negative. Elder is someone wiser and to be respected because of age. The origins of the word are positive as well: elderly. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved January 12, 2015, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/elderly 1610s, from elder + -ly (1). Old English ealdorlic meant “chief, princely, excellent, authentic.” Old English also had related eldernliche “of old time,” literally “forefatherly.”
In China, the elderly are respected and considered honored. Perhaps it is Americans thinking about elderly that is the issue, and not the word itself.
Kathy Terry says
I get concerned with getting too pc. I had my child’s fourth grade teacher tell me the story of how she spent weeks preparing her students to receive a Native American speaker, and to not refer to him as an Indian. Well…he walked into the classroom and started his presentation with, “First of all, I’m an Indian, don’t call me a Native American!” He was relaxed and accepting, and the message was that we all need to relax a bit. I like the worl “elderly.” It’s elegant and, to me, sounds positive and respectful.
John F says
In New Mexico, at various Indian museums and cultural centers in the Taos/Santa Fe/Albuquerque corridor, Indians proudly call themselves “Indians,”
Sandy Dole says
Well I prefer being seen as a person. Sometimes I am happy; sometimes I am sad; sometimes I am angry; sometimes I am silly. To my grandchildren and great grandchildren, I am Grandy; to my 3 children I am Mom; to my friends I am Sandy: to people who are annoyed with me, either just roll their eyes and/or say “there she goes again!” Until the day I die, I want to continue being who I am, and that means that when I can no longer verbally share that information, I am hoping that my caregivers will do everything they can to find out who I have been and continue to be even if I can’t tell them.
It used to bother me that textbooks cost so much, and yet every couple of years new editions of the same book, with nothing but ‘minor,’ changes in wording came out. Now I see why we need such things.
I’ve always been a fan of the word Elder. And I like to capitalize the “E”. Isn’t it a little sad that adding “ly” to end of it makes it unacceptable? Equivalent to the R word?? Really? Why isn’t that the case with “manly”? These things puzzle me.
Mimi, I know. I’ve liked “Elder” very much myself. And while my language is shifting to mirror my ever-changing values and beliefs I want to say that on ChangingAging I don’t think we’re looking for yet another formula, another rule to apply to everyone (sound familiar?) but rather to underscore the importance that we each be aware, tending to our language and our labels to be sure they’re a reflection of what we EACH truly believe. Hopefully we are free to be different from each other. YAY to that! It’s what we’re about here on ChangingAging—celebrating individuality and uniqueness while not infringing on others’ rights. So say what feels right to you, and I’ll say what feels right to me. I certainly wouldn’t want to be called elderly. Maybe in twenty years I’ll be ready to be called an Elder. Before that I’d like to be called a whomping fabulous old lady. Right now (age 60) I’m accepting the banner of middle age with pride and some excitement, since it’s a great time to be living.
I definitely prefer the word elders to “the elderly.” But I’m particularly opposed to using “seniors.” If you look at how it’s being used in business and marketing, a “senior” is anyone over 50, the age you’re supposed to be to join AARP, all the way up to people in their 90s and beyond.
Kavan Peterson, Editor, ChangingAging.org says
I agree Jan — I’m not a fan of Senior Citizen. One of the problems with Senior Citizen is it refers to a specific generation — the WWII Generation. They were actually referred to as “Junior Citizens” at the time and then graduated to “Senior Citizens”. And AARP has known for a long time that the Post War Generation is unwilling to take on the label of their parent’s generation. Plus you have negative cultural references that have developed over time, such as “Senior moments”.
I so much appreciate this exploration and would love to contribute. Yes, labels matter, for better or worse. They are also kind of dangerous, and as a culture, we’re hooked on them. They’re like a verbal “system” that dehumanizes communication, much as medical “systems” dehumanizes caregiving. Labels precede and define our attitudes and beliefs, setting up assumed, unspoken (and therefore dangerous) agreements of shared values, giving us a shorthand that stereotypes an individual in order to facilitate slapdash conversation. For the sake of ease, we get sloppy about meaning.
As some of you have said, “Elder” describes a person who has lived longer and, historically, means someone who is wise, but lordy knows that not all older people are wise or want to be held to that standard. We might look for a word that emphasizes the positive aspects or opportunities of greater age, such as matriarch/patriarch, elderpro, life adept, life maven, or virtuoso vitae but at some point it gets a bit silly while dismissing all of the very real and necessary challenges of aging. (Hard challenges can be good, but whether they’re perceived as good or bad, they’re a real part of our human experience.)
If we turn to person-directed care for guidance, it might be wise for each of us, whenever possible, to use specific descriptors for each individual so that language is personal rather than general. But when we must refer to a group, a wildly varied collective of individual personalities, let’s keep it simple. Older people. Mature people. And again taking our cue from person-directed care, when speaking TO someone older about aging, just ask what term they favor. Hopefully we’ll get a wonderful broad and colorful palette of options.
It seems to me that in the industrial age, when we started applying systems/QC/efficiency thinking to human beings, we began creating damaging human environments (schools, workplaces, and nursing homes) that disenfranchise individuals, denying our beautiful uniqueness that is our humanity. More fool us.
Language creates our reality even as it describes our reality. It frees us to communicate even as it makes meanings that limit us. We need to change both our systems and our language if we want to create lasting changes in our human experience.
Whew! That was fun! Thanks for listening.
Hi Bill! Honestly, I like the word “elderly” but understand the various views. I think it’s more of matter of how we define it. For myself, I naturally use elderly or “old people” and find that a lot of my friends that are my age also do the same. While we need to define “elderly” in a positive way, I think we probably need to define the word, “old” too! For this exact reason, I started my blog. Not only do I want people to know that working with “old” people is meaningful. It would be a dream of mine to one day have every grandchild hug their grandparents literally to death (you know what I mean=)). We start off well, but after a certain age, sadly the hugging often diminishes. =)
I don’t think they should change the word “elderly” I think they should change the picture
of the elderly bent over their canes. How about a picture dancing with there canes?
Patricia Frank says
Brilliant! I like it.
Carole Gordon says
Thank you for reiterating this vital message re language Bill.
As a social gerontologist in New Zealand I have been working on this topic for many years too. My focus has been not only in terms of a personal discipline and everyday use but also in political circles, local government, health system and policy papers encouraging leadership in the wise use of such terminology. Barry Bakan’s poem “What is an Elder” is helpful. Given increased longevity and the ageing of the baby- boomers who will never be “old” – I now find the use of Elder as a more specific older older person’s role – an expression of naming and valuing that more to my liking. I am now using “mature” to embrace people who are older active but not in later years. It really embraces a breadth of age groups of people in a honouring way, honouring wisdom and life experience, and makes people feel good.
Great discussion – so vital to raising ageing consciousness.
Wendi Middleton says
Bill – My colleagues and I struggle with terminology all the time. Language is extremely important and I agree with you that “elderly” signifies frailty. I have also received some feedback from folks of a certain age that “elder” is not comfortable for everyone either. A gentleman told me that he felt that it put a lot of pressure on him to be wise and all-knowing! There seems to be support for “older adult” because the word “adult” is seen as a positive attribute and “older” is not specific. Use of language has become even more important as we work more closely with the disability community where person-first language is essential. We are working very hard to not categorize folks, even to the point of using “persons seeking long term supports and services” when discussing programs serving both older adults and persons with disabilities (or persons living with disabilities), rather than use a moniker that will suggest or promote a negative stereotype or show disrespect.
Andrea Tyck says
As the retirement community I work for has been developing our Green House homes, we’ve begun to intentionally use the term elder. At first it was met with some resistance by both staff and residents. However, as we have continued using the term, coupled with an explanation of elderhood as a distinct state of development, much of the resistance has faded. What I find challenging is when a resident is very bothered by the word elder (which seems usually to stem from the association with “elderly”) because if “elders rule” I feel we shouldn’t insist on referring to them in a way that doesn’t resonate with them. Generally, a respectful conversation is able to convey that the intention is to honor someone who has transitioned out of adulthood and into elderhood. It has become common for the reaction from elders themselves to be one of pleasant surprise, which reminds me that changing aging and the perception of it is a long journey. I’m in it for the long haul.
This comment is a great example of where the issue really has roots. Here the “residents” did not embrace the term themselves, but the community continued to establish a culture of acceptance & understanding of the term and eventually it holds positive. Society (media, government, corporations included) has to first embrace and understand aging….driving this change is our responsibility as advocates. Otherwise any word or words used to define or describe aging will ultimately fall victim to the social fear of growing old. I do not think that it matters in the macro vision which words we use, we can, however, control the micro vision and see similar results as stated in this posting. Long term we continue to push forward developing small cultural changes locally and eventually building up enough influence to have true social impact on the perception of aging and it’s related descriptions. The reality is that if we socially embraced growing old then any of these terms would not ignite negative connections.
Alan Harris says
I totally agree with Dr. T. The term ‘Elderly’ conjures only negative stereotypes which encompass the frailities of aging. It’s a slippery slope we tread any time we use an adjective to characterize a set of people. There are many other examples that we could use (in addition to ‘retard’) which would further emphasize how ill-conceived words not only hurt, but also reveal a society’s unwitting embrace of social stigmas towards all those who appear different.
Hmm. I’m quite sad actually to read this. So, I’m hopeful I’ve mis-read it. Are you really giving up on the term “elderly?” It’s such an important term. i remember hearing one of your lectures on the three hoods and fell in love with elderhood. It’s the missing link. We’re in a war with ‘adults” who are bypassing childhood and making elders invisible. We need our elders, we need our wisest, most experienced to provide context and perspective to our manic lives and remind us of the long view, of what’s really important. I don’t understand why we (as a society) are so fearful of differences. We discriminate on a daily basis … actually every second of the day our brains triage the information it’s collecting and decide what’s important. Language is a means to communicate importance and differentiate the noise around us. Name the cohort, but each has x number of words that describe a generic thing. (don’t Eskimos have 30 words for snow?) They have so many because there are different levels of importance to the word, the feeling, the magic, the mystery, the music that communication offers. Language is incredibly important. I remember learning about the difference between “chairman” and “chairwoman” of the board … actually I can’t remember where I ever saw a chairwoman so named in a major annual report. I have seen “chair” which I think is an appropriate way to generalize a role. But only a few people make it to elderhood. They have toiled, they have survived, they have earned a respected place within our community. They are our elders! If we allow the term a negative connotation, it’s because we’re allowing the adults to win. Instead, I’d recommend we follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice and own our situation and not give our power away.
I’m a child in adult clothes wishing my elders the best for 2013, may it be fun, fabulous and fulfilling…
Kavan Peterson, Editor, ChangingAging.org says
Hi David — I don’t think Bill was quite clear enough in the conclusion, but he is a HUGE proponent of using the word “Elder”. It has a substantially different connotation than the word “elderly”, which clearly implies “frailty”, “weakness”, etc. The word Elder is so infrequently used that we have a chance to seize it and give it a positive meaning.
stuart greenbaum says
Very important topic. “Aging” is an all-inclusive process. As in: Everyone is aging, some of us just have more experience. The term “older adult” works well to qualify rather than label people.
Althea Paulson says
My mother is 93. She has moderate dementia and a failing heart. She constantly tells me she hates being old. She also complains about all the “old people” in her facility. Whether people are “older” or “elderly”, the truth is that age brings a diminishing of physical capacities. A real change in aging would not concentrate so much on what we call our elders as on a truthful acknowledgement of the many changes age brings, many that are difficult, frightening and downright depressing. It is hard and for many, impossible, to let go of former beauty, success, health and ability, but whether we accept it or not, if we live long enough we will decline. With the decline of the physical being, there is a possibility for the fuller blooming of the inner life—which our culture doesn’t acknowledge at any age. But if we continue to deny of the reality of the “old” (there, I said it, and I don’t apologize)–the slowing down of bodily systems, the dimming of the senses and for many, the dimming of the mind—they will find it harder to take up the most important task anyone faces: preparing to die by living each moment truthfully and with love.
Interesting post. I had “issues” with that as well. After a while – I simply asked people 65+ for their opinion and: most prefer “older adults”, some don’t mind “seniors” and so far I haven’t heard opinion on “elder”. So if I need to use the emphasis on the “age” factor then I like to say “older adult” but if I don’t need to – then the emphasis is on the “person” and that’s it.
Kate's Daughter says
My thoughts are in total agreement. Elder conveys dignity, wisdom, and encourages respect. Elderly is fragile, debilitated, needing care regardless of circumstances.
The language we use to describe our world is that important; that critical. Let’s get it right, and where it isn’t work to make it so.
E. Ayn Welleford says
I frequently find myself in similar “dust ups” or as I call them, twitter battles. Thank you for so eloquently and proactively carrying this flag.
Patricia Frank says
Me, as an aging Baby Boomer, doing my very best to embrace and cherish my elderhood, prefer being called and referred to as “Oh Wise, Exalted Elder.” That may be shortened to the acronym OWEE! for reasons of brevity. Works for me…
Sailesh Mishra says
I agree with Dr. Bill Thomas and Iam still learning , need to look for more dignified name . I have experience here in India too many ‘Elder’s’ dont like to called them so , they prefer calling them with Name or with ‘Dada – Dadi’ ‘Nana- Nani’ , they look for dignity , respect and also they dont want to be labeled as ‘Retired’