How Medicare Funds are Wasted
A New York Minute

Are You Elderly?

[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.]


Thank you I'll be 62 in July and I hardly feel old and frail. This is one of the best times of my life. I have so much experience and history to live with and share with my family and friends.

Well said..

Dorothy from grammology
remember to call gram

I always like your posts and text!
Thanks for sharing!

Right, Ronni! It's all about language, language, language.

I think we all need to keep bringing these lapses by writers to their attention whenever we encounter them -- just in case they didn't happen to read this post, or "the Journalists Exchange on Aging memo."

Maybe I'll just copy that statement journalists didn't bother to read, or have forgotten, and send it to a few as a friendly reminder. Why not add this blog post's URL for TGB?

Oh my, here I have rolled past 70 and I surely do not feel old and frail.
Should "I".
I am still excited about life and have some new challenges.
My 60's were one of nonstop activity. Building 3 homes and also a couple of serious relationships. Thank goodness they were brief.
Now I am excited about creating a garden at my new home, posting on my new blog, learning how to post images, children, grandchildren, time to read and sit in the sun and just time to breath and enjoy life.

At least for us Boomers, the current version of marginalizing elders is partly our own doing. Remember all that "Don't trust anyone over 30" nonsense from 40 years ago? None of us still believes that, but a faint whiff of it remains in the air.

The current crop of twenty-somethings is probably no wiser about aging than we were. So as elders, we have to speak up for ourselves again and again. The job just doesn't stay done.

P.S.: Dorothy, I'll be 62 in June and, like you, I'm having some of the best times of my life right now.

Habit is the reason the term elderly is used so often. The way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit. So, you elders, speak up and educate everyone you talk or write to.

For you 62 year old kids, I say, "Good for you." Enjoy your productive years because it doesn't get better from now on.
I'm not frail, but a recent trip showed me how much I have lost in mobility and energy. I am definitely and elderly, but I am absolutely an elder at 82.

A couple of years ago, at the ripe old age of 58, a friend of my daughter-in-law's referred to me as elderly ("that elderly woman who answered the door"). That sure was a shock, I didn't know how to respond to it. Later, my grandson asked me, "Granne, how come you look old?" and I promptly responded, "Because I am, my dear."

I don't mind the grandson thinking I look old, but a thirty-something woman thinking I am elderly, all I can say is, just you wait, one day you too will be "elderly" before your time!

I like "elder" though, I try to use it as often as I can. Spread the word!

The perfect example of elder and active, in my opinion, would be John McCain's mother, who is in her 90s, who walks and stands, etc. without a cane or any other kind of help, and is traveling around with him on his campaign. I'm not so sure that I could do that at 61!

Ronni, I'm afraid I disagree with your premise that "The meaning of elderly has alway included lacking in or declining strength."
Not to me, it hasn't. And not to either of the two dictionaries on my reference shelf (one American, one English) either. Both define elderly as 'bordering on old age', nearing old age', 'between middle and old age'. In other words, 'old-ish' or 'getting towards old'.
In obstetetrics, a first-time mother over 35 is referred to as an 'elderly primagravida'.
'Elderly' refers only to chronological age. There's no mention anywhere of frailty or decline in strength.
I know that old age and frailty are almost always coupled in the end, if we live long enough, but I think the problem we are grappling with here is the automatic and unjustified coupling of them in so many people's minds in reference to anyone over 70. The problem is not with the word 'elderly' per se. Used properly, 'elderly' is a perfectly good and useful adjective, with a specific meaning. So why not let's have a campaign for using it correctly, rather than distorting its meaning still further as the journalists were (wrongly, IMO)advised to do.
I do agree, however, that rather than turning it into a noun ('the elderly'), we should use 'elders'.
'Young', 'middle-aged', 'elderly', 'old' ... all these terms are fuzzy and relative anyway. No wonder they cause us so many problems. Perhaps we should officially standardise them, like we do with spring, summer, autumn and winter. That would solve a lot of problems!!

I don't mind the words old, senior, and elder (I also like crone) but do mind elderly as it definitely should be descriptive of someone who is in the older old years and frail due to age...

frail - the weight of a frail (basket) full of raisins or figs; between 50 and 75 pounds
weight unit, weight - a unit used to measure weight; "he placed two weights in the scale pan"
2. frail - a basket for holding dried fruit (especially raisins or figs)
basket, handbasket - a container that is usually woven and has handles
Adj. 1. frail - physically weak; "an invalid's frail body"
delicate - exquisitely fine and subtle and pleasing; susceptible to injury; "a delicate violin passage"; "delicate china"; "a delicate flavor"; "the delicate wing of a butterfly"
weak - wanting in physical strength; "a weak pillar"
robust - sturdy and strong in form, constitution, or construction; "a robust body"; "a robust perennial"
2. frail - wanting in moral strength, courage, or will; having the attributes of man as opposed to e.g. divine beings; "I'm only a fallible human"; "frail humanity"
fallible, imperfect, weak
human - having human form or attributes as opposed to those of animals or divine beings; "human beings"; "the human body"; "human kindness"; "human frailty"
3. frail - easily broken or damaged or destroyed; "a kite too delicate to fly safely"; "fragile porcelain plates"; "fragile old bones"; "a frail craft"
fragile, delicate
breakable - capable of being broken or damaged; "earthenware pottery is breakable"; "breakable articles should be packed carefully"

I'll take this part of the definition:

"exquisitely fine and subtle and pleasing"

And I'll only be 50 this year.

Don't let people use words to hurt you. ;^)

Until I started volunteering in disaster preparedness/disaster relief, I never associated one's being elderly with anything other than age. Now, I wage a one-woman campaign against classifying the elderly as being disabled. As I told attendees at a FEMA Community Mass Care class that I co-taught, "The majority of the disaster relief workers are elderly. If I were hit by a beer truck on my way to my car tonight, the headline of the little piece in the paper would read, 'Elderly Woman Wanders into Path of On-Coming Truck'; but, I defy you to name one way in which I need to be accommodated in case of disaster. I will be there getting assistance to the younger people, as will my fellow elders."

If they mean "frail" or "having gait, sight or hearing disability", they should say so and, in fact those classifications are already listed among the populations requiring special consideration in planning and executing disaster relief so there is no need to add a category. Elderly denotes my age, not my physical or mental state!

By the way: the silent category that does require special consideration in disaster planning and response; but, which is never mentioned, is body size. People who exceed a certain height and/or weight require special cots on which to sleep.

It just doesn't make sense to me to use "elder" to mean one thing and "elderly" to mean another. I'm not really satisfied with "elder" - it makes me feel like I should be living in a tribe in some unindustrialized century. The dream would be use the word that says what the writer means - over 50 or frail or disabled. Whoops! Can't say "disabled" either, any more than you can say "fat." I understand your point, Ronni; just don't even begin to have an answer, other than more specific language within a specific context.

The contrasting visual that eliminating the -ly conjures is substantial. It's a mindset that shifts thinking from frail and even fruitless to exerienced, wise and vital. As a publisher of picture books for elders (art meets literature for the mature soul) I spend many hours with my elder friends and am the receiver of many abundant gifts that can only come from experienced wisdom.

I was glad to see Marian's fine post regarding the terminology everyone seems so fired up about. I am nowhere near so erudite, but will try to describe my uneasiness with 'dumbing down' yet another word in our rich and beautiful language.

Elderly: In all of the dictionaries that I've looked in (including those online) there is no mention of frail, debilitated, or any other adjective that would indicate such as part of the definition.

Elder: On the other hand, elder has a very specific meaning. There is no other word that can take its place. Using it as a blanket term for everyone over the age of n (name your number) will dilute its meaning. Elder SHOULD be used, but to describe those people who have earned that right. Not just passed through enough years.

There is a similar movement in (public) schools where every student is an 'honor' student. So, how do we describe a true honor student? We are even encouraged to deny the idea that there ARE true honor students. But my friends, there are.

Have we become so politically correct that we can no longer admit that some individuals actually have capacities that exceed the vast majority of the population? Did Einstein? How about Feinman? 'Air' Jordan? Beethoven?

Do people here really believe that everyone is capable of being a physicist? A professional basketball player? A student at Julliard?

I certainly hope that the Aristotelian notion of the blank slate has not subsumed every mind on this 'blog'. But I see the evidence of it more and more...

Yes, when you turn 60 you can expect to see some physical changes however; these can be positive changes involving great strength and creative productivity. And yes, I am a Senior as in seniorpreneur.


It's always a shock whenever I read a headline that proclaims something like "Elderly woman foils purse snatcher," and it turns out she is younger than I am.

The first time that I was called "elderly" was in the context of "elderly primigravidae" when I gave birth to my first child at 25. I am now 60 and haven't been called elderly for a while.

I have a confession. Try as I have, I don't like the word elder. One thing about the word old, you can't turn it into "olderly." I don't mind being called an older person. I am in relation to many. So what?


I'm amazed at how many connect "old" or "elderly" to helpless. I recently covered a story that suggested able-minded elders needed to be protected from bad foods. I think the semantics are far less important than lack of respect. Whether crossing the street or eating a donut, judgement is required. Most seniors have extraordinary judgement refined by years of practical application. It's time that society respects this fact.

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