Defining the term “elderly” is quite complicated.
Of the two definitions given by the Merriam Webster dictionary, “of, relating to, or characteristic of later life or elderly persons” is most applicable. This dictionary definition fails to list an age or any characteristics; it is seemingly divorced from society’s notions of age. The New York Times reported, in 2009, that for the elderly, the idea of “old” age differs exponentially for those below 65. More so, for persons below 30, old age is 60 and above. This highlights the point they reached in two separate articles. Journalists Tara Parker-Pope and Sarah Arnquist concluded that how one feels is directly correlated to age, particularly in reference to defining old age.
More recently, NPR published an article noting the debate surrounding the use of the word “elderly”. They argue that much like using the words “those people”, it is othering. In noting what officially demarcates “the elderly”, one must keep in mind the fact that it is dynamic. 90 can truly be the new 60, primarily due to medical advances in health care and mental upkeep. In utilizing the adjectives for the elder generations, sensitivity is key.
Within our current health milieu, suspending the use of “elderly” seems most responsible. While utilizing it can be beneficial to those who want to “own” their age, why risk offending those of an older age? Some may read it as just a word, others might see it as an extension of our youth based culture. It truly is an emotional issue: in addressing someone who is older, utilizing “senior” as opposed to “elderly” can remove the stigma that is now attached to old age, and moreover, completely divorce the notions that come with “elderly”. Both articles previously mentioned spoke of the ideas surrounding the “elderly”-failing health, waning mental health and dependency. This context by no means defines every senior citizen.