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When Elderly Is an Offensive Term

| May 28, 2012

Detail from Picasso's 'Le vieux guitariste,' 'The Old Guitarist' (1903).

A particularly violent accident on U.S. 1 earlier this month took the lives of two women, one 68, the other 74. I referred to the two victims in a headline as “elderly.” The sincere outpouring of grief aside, the headline triggered a curious backlash. “I want to complain about your characterization of people with the experience of years as ‘elderly,’” one frequent correspondent wrote only half in jest, echoing verbal remarks along the same varix.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive “In a couple of months, I turn 65, and I think of myself as still a good way from ‘elderly,’” he continued. “Is there an accepted journalistic rule of thumb for the age at which the term ‘elderly’ is reasonable, given that people are living longer and longer? To some twenty-somethings, anything over 40 is elderly, so I understand it relates to perspective. When does elderly morph into sprightly?”

I’m not much for journalistic conventions that replace direct words with sprightly euphemisms. There are exceptions. But the word elderly had never struck me as one of those socially charged terms with the lexicographic equivalent of a criminal history, like nigger or wetback or primitive. I take the word elderly as a descriptive term no different than the color of one’s hair. Of course it can be subjective, like the implied difference between blond and gray hair. But to have issue with the word implies something inherently negative about old age. That would be odd in the United States, where the elderly wield disproportionate political and economic power. They vote the most. They’re not the richest, but they have the lowest poverty rate of any age group, the fewest responsibilities, and the highest rate of health coverage.

They’re also, as a bloc, becoming a juggernaut, with tea parties for wheelies, though thankfully the elderly vote, while naturally progressing toward a self-preserving conservatism, is not yet too monolithic. Veterans of more progressive days abound in these swelling ranks. And swelling they are. The proportion of people 65 and over had never exceeded 3 percent until recently, which made such humane innovations as a tax-supported Social Security system affordable and logical. Now that proportion is exceeding 13 percent in the United States. Old age and its multiplying beneficiaries, far from being marginalized, are becoming the country’s most potent, and potentially dogmatic, political power.

There are problems with old age. Florida is ground zero. Our nursing homes and assisted living facilities are for the most part updated concentration camps, with activity directors for wardens. Each patient is a cash cow for the company running the “home,” as pitiful a misnomer as any in the industry. And yes, Clint Eastwood is still making movies at 81, Betty White is still making us laugh at 90, Henry Kissinger is still making us cringe at 89 and Philip Roth is still making us blush at 79. They remind us, as do many lesser celebrities we all know in our lives, how subjective the word elderly can be. But they also tend to be the exceptions in a land too rich in human pastures.

It’s the paradox of old age in the United States. The elderly are simultaneously the country’s most powerful single demographic and its least respected. I find quite offensive the accepted habit of calling older people “sweetie” or “dear,” of calling an old woman “young lady” or condescending with questions such as “how many years young are you?” People who interact with the elderly routinely use those words as if to endear, when the words infantilize and demean, equating age with helplessness or stupidity.

But it’s a two-way deal. Age should not be an automatic trigger of patronizing assumptions. Nor should it be an entitlement to deference or even respect: age is no more a legitimate indicator of social rank, intelligence or wisdom than heredity. If the elderly don’t want to be infantilized, if they don’t want to be referred to as the elderly, it may be time to means-test the term and the literal benefits it entails.

The same folks who’d object to being called elderly are likely part of the same political powerhouse opposing changes to Social Security’s retirement age or extending Medicare to all. In Florida especially, retired taxpayers are obstacles to higher taxes for better schools, better universities, better futures for the young. Politicians don’t fear taxes. They fear elderly voters. Older legions that form the majority of tea party ranks have no problem complaining about younger Americans on the dole while they themselves are by far the country’s costliest charge. Perhaps the more debatable term isn’t elderly, but the more capitulating retired.

Sure we need an attitude adjustment toward the elderly. They’re not helpless. But nor are they done helping. That adjustment starts with the shuffleboard generation’s own attitude about itself–and its lapsed responsibility beyond self-interest and toward younger generations.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here.

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22 Responses for “When Elderly Is an Offensive Term”

  1. comment says:

    Just another double edged sword. Elderly people REALLY enjoy the benefits of discounts offered because of their age and miss very few opportunities to take advantage of them. They have expectations of how they should be treated because of their age. They use age to their advantage when it is convenient and suits them. I have worked around seniors for the last 8 years and have seen and heard many a senior feel “entitled” to certain privileges just because “I am an old woman/man, why not”. I cannot say I actually disagree with their expectations and thoughts, use what is there for you, that is why it is there. BUT, it is there because you are “retired”, “elderly”, “old” or “senior. A choice needs to be made, be old and reap the benefits or be nondescript and have the same as you did when you were younger. Most of us are born, young, middle age, old and then we die. Each stage has advantages and disadvantages but, that is the circle of life.

  2. Eileen G. Miller says:

    So what do you call them then…??? I don’t think Elderly is offensive at all. People just way too sensitive

    • Lady Carlyle says:

      @ Eileen…Royalty? Rather fitting, if I do say so myself. They truly are THE welfare kings and queens, you know.

  3. tulip says:

    Replacing the word “elderly” with the term “Super Senior” sounds good. Just a thought.

  4. James Wallace says:

    I’m in my 60s, so seeing my contemporaries referred to as “elderly” does makes me uncomfortable–queasy.
    Why not just state the ages and forego the additional judgmental modifiers? That way you can’t go wrong.

    • JR says:

      Mr. Wallace,
      Not to insult you, and I’m not a therapist, but your statement of feeling “uncomfortable-queasy” comes off as if you appear uncomfortable with your own age. I don’t know if that is the case, and if it is it’s understandable, but to project you opinions on others so as to not feel, “uncomfortable” is akin to saying others have to do things your way because you want them to. That is the other side of the double-edged sword Pierre was writing about.

      And they are not “judgmental” modifiers, they are descriptive adjectives, used to convey greater imagery than mere numbers. Otherwise, FlaglerLive could simply repost the the police reports and be done with it.

    • Yellowstone says:

      Often I am mistaken for someone in my 40s or 50s. Often when I ask for tge ‘Senior’s Discount’ I’ll be confronted with, show me your ID”. (I am 70)

      Older age doesn’t mean you have to look elderly. Nor does it mean you have diminished skills. I recently was in an interview session. Statement was causually made, “how could have done all these things?”

      The person sat there for a moment, then asked, “how old are you anyway!”

      Should being 18 indicates you are a fully functioning adult? People of all ages do stupid things: driving while texting, slipping through stop signs, can’t read the fine print, don’t understand the gibberish the waiter spoke.

      Try and get away from labling people – especially because of their age. Judge people by what they do.

      Let’s face it – age is not a determinate of anything!

    • Nanci Whitley says:

      I agree. An “under 20” doesn’t want to be referred to as a child…..a 40 year old doesn’t want to be called “middle-aged” and a 68 year old doesn’t want to be called “elderly”. Pierre, Why do you put so much judgement and restrictions on the over 65 set and not on the other age groups? Please don’t lump us all in such a narrow and selfish generalization.

  5. Nancy N. says:

    In my experience with older family members, “elderly” is always 20 years older than their own current age.

    20 years ago, when they were around 50, they’d have thought 70 was elderly. Now, they are all around 70 or even above themselves. Today, 80 is “getting up there” and 90 is elderly.

    Elderly = Feeble and waiting to die in most people’s mental definition. No one wants to define themselves that way. Even if it’s an accurate description.

  6. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    “retired taxpayers are obstacles to higher taxes for better schools, better universities, better futures for the young”

    Why is now just about always referenced as a fact, that increased funding will automatically and unequivocally equal “better schools” or “better universities”? Since 1961 funding per student (in constant dollars) has risen almost five fold ( , are our schools now five times better than they were in 1961? I think the easier argument to make would be that schools are at best equal to 1961, but most likely fair worse today.

    So maybe the old, retired, elderly, or anyone else that opposes the constant drum beat of more taxes for education, do so for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with age, and everything to do with reality.

  7. palmcoaster says:

    @ James Wallace. Yours is the best approach. I personally don’t find the word elderly offensive as neither teen, or middle age. I am bordering the 70’s and I can’t believe it myself, so then I joke a lot about it.. I do not see or feel myself that age and try to keep young at heart by adjusting my daily activities to whatever my body responds best as I better pay attention when it complains. Switched water skiing, windsurfing and tennis for landscaping, gardening and walks and about to start kayaking now. Meanwhile I enjoy the sunrise and sunset splendor everyday, grateful to God that I am still alive and well to still see it. Is always better to be called elderly, than cranky old folk…besides life is too short to worry about such petty things, once we cross our 50’s.

  8. Wayne Grant says:

    When the ages are given in a news story, what’s the point of saying “elderly?”

  9. Will says:

    To Nancy N: I like your point of view – 80’s is “getting up there” and 90’s is “elderly” Now that makes sense!

    And, I know some in both age groups who push the envelope to postpone “elderly” to the early 100’s. :)

  10. Tina says:

    I think of “elderly” more as a state of mind than an age. It’s not offensive to be in that category, but I’d sure like to feel and act like I’m not there yet!

  11. elaygee says:

    If you’re over 77 and still collecting Social Security, you’;re on welfare as you already got all your money back PLUS interest and are now living off the backs of those younger folks. When it was set up, SSA presumed you’d be dead by age 77 and that’s not the case anymore.

    • Johnny Taxpayer says:

      not quite… a) the SSA assumption of 77 as the life expectancy of a recipient of social security is not based on and has no relevance to the amount any individual paid in over their your working years, that was simply the age at which they assumed most would die by, doesn’t mean they collected everything back.

      b) Nobody (with certain very limited exceptions) is given the choice in his/her working years whether or not to pay into social security, you’re mandated to pay in, under the guise that the benefit will exist when you’re eligible to collect., and continue for the rest of your life If program only served as a savings account, why would we go to bother and expense of setting up a huge bureaucracy to oversee a savings account? If we were given the choice, most rationale people would realize that they can do a much better job investing and growing their money than the government could, and would opt out.

  12. Emile says:

    Why so many mean-spirited comments about those who are fortunate enough to attain “elderly” status? Seniors are not a bloc. We are liberals and conservatives, conservationists and sportsmen, volunteers, activists and stay-at-homes caring for our disabled children and perhaps even grandchildren. We were brought up to take pride in our communities and care deeply about our country. Those who have a problem with our receiving Social Security and Medicare should see how much we must pay each month for our medical bills.

    Most of us did not receive hefty pensions on retirement and have to depend on our savings to make ends meet.

    Personally, I never remember to ask for a senior discount. But now that I have been told that I am “Entitled”, I’ll have to start.

    • Nancy N. says:

      Emilie, I don’t think it is mean-spirited to note that as a statistical group senior citizens tend to exhibit certain statistical traits that researchers have noted: they tend to get on average more conservative as they age, for instance, meaning less likely to vote for taxes for public services. That’s a statistical average however of a group and you are correct – not every senior is a carbon copy of each other. However, as a group, on average, that population does tend to have certain statistically measurable traits.

      As a forty-something worker, I don’t have a problem in theory with the existence of social security and medicare. I’m very glad it is there for my mother to collect from and to help with her medical care.

      I think the reason that you find a lot of people of my generation hostile about the programs, however, is that we are paying into them and most of us have very little confidence that we will ever see anything back out of those programs. The hidden social contract of those programs is that each generation pays in and is then supported by the generation behind them. We are paying to support today’s generation of retirees but many of today’s workers believe that there is a high probability that the next generation is not going to pay for us. Our confidence is gone that the safety net will be there for us. So it makes us angry to see today’s seniors walking around with a sense of entitlement to being supported with our tax dollars, when we believe that no one is going to do the same for us. We believe, most of us, that we are the generation that is going to have to pay twice – into social security taxes when we will never see benefits, and to fund our own retirement as well. We believe instead of feeling entitled that today’s seniors should be grateful for what they have, because we are staring at getting nothing is our fear.

    • comment says:

      My sincere apologies Emile. I should have used the word deserving, not entitled. When one works hard all their life and contributes to their personal future they 100% deserve what they receive.

  13. jespo says:

    Wah….the truth will piss you of before it sets you free. Seems like the Greatest Generation didn’t teach the Silent Generation how to grow thicker skin. You can’t tell people to respect their elders or complain about elder abuse in one breathe then view being elderly as derisive the next.

  14. Geezer says:

    Americans who paid into Social Security via deductions from their paychecks are richly deserving of their monthly checks. They EARNED it.

    That is not my definition of Welfare.

    May they live very long and happy lives.

  15. Clint says:

    Well,well,well…….Has the time come in our society that reaching an age older then 55 means your a meaningless, non-productive, government tax burden ? And all this time I thought that definition would go to all the welfare, food stamp, medicaid leeches !

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