This letter has been sitting on my to-do list since at least last January. I finally settled down yesterday, got it written and emailed it to Arthur S. Brisbane who is the public editor at The New York Times.
Dear Mr. Brisbane:
I am writing to ask you to use your influence as the public editor at The New York Times to end the use of the word “elderly” as the paper’s default synonym for old. It is offensive and helps perpetuate the ageism of American culture yet is used in thousands of Times’ stories day in and day out.
Let me explain with some examples:
Functions Make Phones Easier for the Elderly
This headline, and the story, suggest that old people in general are cognitively impaired. Most elders are not and often these sorts of telephones are useful for eyesight problems (a difficulty for many young people too) and arthritis. Neither of these afflictions diminish one’s mental powers as that word in the headline implies.
The shingles vaccine may be even more effective than first thought, scientists said on Tuesday. So why aren’t more of the elderly getting it?
This was the blurb in an RSS feed from the Times’ New Old Age blog. “Elderly” again, implying frailty and suggesting that elders might be too stupid to get the vaccine.
Social Security provides the primary support for nearly half the elderly population.
That’s another from the New Old Age blog making it sound like everyone 65 and older is frail, sickly and maybe not capable in some manner.
All it takes to remove the pejorative nature of that headline is to change one word: Social Security provides the primary support for nearly half the elder population.”
See how respectful that headline becomes without changing the meaning in the slightest?
Yet, “elderly” is the go-to word at The New York Times for nearly every reference to old people. Past-7-Days searches for the word “elderly” on 7 August and 24 October each returned 10,000+ results. Try that search yourself – you’ll be amazed at how many times “elderly” is used inappropriately. The paper even has an entire “Times Topic” titled “Elderly” so you see the pervasiveness – and, in my contention, the ageism.
Yes, ageism. And it is not just single words. What makes The New York Times think this is acceptable from a Gail Collins column some months ago [emphasis added]:
“There is something about Romney that causes people to want to change the channel; or, if they are in a senior center in Florida listening to a candidate forum, wander off in search of a second helping of Jell-O.“
Ms. Collins (or an editor) was careful to protect the Jell-O trademark by capitalizing the product’s name but perpetuated the persistent prejudice against elders by depicting them as demented, drooling infants. Tell me, how is that sentence different from describing black people with fried chicken or watermelon references?
There is one more headline I cannot resist including: Employment of Elderly: Supply or Demand. Now really. Who would hire anyone described as elderly? Certainly that headline did its part in contributing to elder unemployment.
It is important to understand that unlike childhood during which developmental benchmarks can be predicted to the month and even week, people age at dramatically different rates. Some 50-year-olds are already in decline while some 100-year-olds are as sharp and active as people decades younger.
Eight years ago, when I started my blog about aging, I made a carefully considered decision to never use any kind of euphemism for old age – certainly none of the deeply offensive like geezer, biddy or crock nor cutesy terms like golden ager. I don’t like senior or senior citizen much either with their dated whiff of such stereotypes as early-bird dinners.
So I settled on “old” and “elder.” Old is as good a descriptor as young or youth are for that other end of life and elder embodies respect and dignity that the extra -ly at the end of the word destroys.
There already is a long tradition for using elder over elderly. Elderlaw has been a specialty practice for many decades. Elder abuse is universally used to describe that terrible crime. Eldercare is commonly spoken of everywhere.
Several states have adopted the word too. The name of the agency on aging in the state of Massachusetts is Executive Office of Elder Affairs. Florida calls its agency on aging the Department of Elder Affairs. And the Wisconsin Bureau of Aging & Disability Resources uses “elder,” “old” or “old person” as required in its publications saving “frail elder” to describe an old person in need of services from the department.
As you certainly know, language is powerful and how we choose words can make all the difference in how people are perceived.
The word “elder” is as simple, neutral and descriptive as child, youth and adult. Replacing elderly with it would remove the dismissive language that has been allowed to describe old people for too long and as the paper of record read by editors the world over, The New York Times could go a long way to conferring the dignity and respect elders deserve as much as anyone else.
Please consider this suggestion.
A few minutes after I sent this message to Mr. Brisbane, I received an automated email reply stating that although they read every message, they respond only to those that deal with the “journalistic integrity” of the Times. I think this issue meets that requirement and I’ll let you know when/if I receive a reply.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Home