[EDITORIAL NOTE: The TGB Interview with elder comedian Mrs. Hughes is still one of the most popular pages on this blog. She is appearing on the Craig Ferguson television show tonight on CBS-TV. Check your local listings.]
I ask that question in the headline because the media think you are. Reporters consistently and continually refer to old people as “elderly” even though the newsletter of the Journalists Exchange on Aging [pdf] (an organization for reporters who cover the age beat) wisely advises the following:
“Use only as a modifier (e.g., elderly people, elderly patients) in referring to people who are discernibly old and frail.” [emphasis added]
The meaning of elderly has alway included lacking in or declining strength, and when the word is used as a synonym for old people in general, it implies that everyone whose appearance is old-looking is no longer capable of caring for themselves, helpless or near death. The citations below were collected during the month of March 2008, without my having made more than a casual effort to notice them. There are undoubtedly many others.
The New York Times:
“You need not be elderly to remember when we had no choice…” (about our too-busy lives)
The New York Time again:
“Addiction specialists and organizations for the elderly anticipate a tidal wave of baby boomers…” (about aging addicts)
A subhead in the Washington Post:
“Officials, Schools Prod Doctors to Focus on Elderly Care” (about the dwindling supply of geriatricians)
“And in Japan…more than 40 percent of the population will be elderly by the middle of this century.” (about global aging)
Headline on a medical news website:
“Baltimore Sun Examines Medicine Mismanagement Among Elderly U.S. Residents” (about prescription drug safety)
Even a professional medical writer at the Washington Post:
“Merck…wanted a broader market than just elderly fracture patients” (about causes of health anxiety)
And, The New York Times again:
“…one of three storefront hubs for the elderly here…” (about new kinds of senior centers)
All the reporters responsible for these stories were writing about old people in general, not those who are frail. Apparently, they and their editors did not get the Journalists Exchange on Aging memo.
It is not only reporters who consign all old people to the category of frail. That kind of disrespect infects departments of transportation too, as these signs indicate:
Just as near schoolyards we remind motorists there are children around who might chase a ball into the street, it’s a good idea to warn drivers to watch for slow-moving adults. More old people than young do move slowly, but slow doesn’t necessarily mean frail and the word “elder” would do the traffic alert job while preserving elders’ dignity.
When we consistently identify a group of people with prejudicial descriptions, it not only demeans them, but gives other people permission to do so and reinforces pre-conceived, negative notions picked up from all the other cultural cues to the old-is-bad school of thought.
Surveys show that most old people don’t like the phrase “senior citizen” and I agree. It has a dusty, institutional feel. Some old folks are fine with “senior,” but it too feels inadequate and for several years Time Goes By has been promoting “elder” as a replacement.
Elderlaw has been the word for that career specialty for many years. Elderblogging and elderblogger are becoming so common now, that they flow trippingly off the tongue of every journalist, television and radio producer who contacts me leaving me to wonder why they don't make the linguistic leap to elder.
Elderly is a good and useful word for describing frail elders. But the majority of old people lead healthy lives, contributing to their communities into their seventies, eighties and even nineties. Most of us are not frail and therefore, not elderly.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Richard Mims takes us back to the heyday of hippies, rock 'n' roll and the Vietnam War in May 1971 - Washington, D.C.]