Distracted on Sunday Afternoon
Contemplating My Death

An Open Letter to Arthur S. Brisbane at the NYT

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.

These show up in your own newspaper. Just two examples here and here. The point is that advanced age is not the equivalent of frail or sickly as elderly implies.

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.

Sincerely,
Ronni Bennett

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


Comments

This is going to be interesting ... it took a major effort over 15 years to get the NYT to substitute "gay and lesbian" for "homosexual". Thousands of words were expended on it.

Phase one required the LGBT community to care about the change. Are we there re "elders"?

Phase two required informing the NYT repeatedly that they should change. You are doing that.

Phase three (when they changed) involved I think the passing of a previous generation of publishers.

You write one heckuva' letter! Thanks, Ronni. Dee

I don't think Mr. Brisbane gets very many letters as well written and to the point as the one you sent him today.

I hope it doesn't take a management change as Jan suggested to make the NYT reconsider their choice of words.

It will be interesting to see just how long it takes for you to receive a reply.

Hear! Hear!

Let's hope they take notice and stop using the E-word. Language matters.

Ronni - fingers crossed, but I also wanted to say I especially like the Wisconsin term "frail elder" when needed because of how it explicitly separates the needs of the person vs. their age, and makes it very clear that not all who are elders are also frail. Of course this is the entire point - and elderly makes the opposite implication as you note - but I love learning that somewhere in the US, it can be and has been done right by a government body. Always a little reassuring when they can get it so right!

Elderly has pretty well lost its meaning as they use it sometimes for anybody over 60 which is plain silly. I laugh when I see it especially if it's attached to an age number smaller than my own. I see your concern though and think the news media should use it when it truly does equate to age that is debilitating which comes later, not in one's 60s or even early 70s. There does come a time though where someone is elderly and it's probably one hard to pin down to a number based on how differently we age. I do equate the word elderly with weakened even if that's not how they use it. When they run these articles, they often don't have time to figure out whether that is the case. Figuring out how to describe someone (ethnically, age, looks, etc.) when a modifying adjective, has changed so much just in my lifetime based on many different categories.

As a writer, I may be unusually alert to words. So I started reading this article thinking: what? And after five seconds I thought: I get it.

"Elderly" banished now by me. Maybe replaced by "older," a more familiar word, and a reminder that every person on earth is, every day, getting...older.

Not just us.

every day in every way, we're getting older and older ... and more and more grateful for you and your posts. Fingers crossed (SOME magic is obviously required here!) that your letter gets read, responded to and acknowledged in practice.

Their auto-reply is a sad way of developing a relationship with readers. Does it preclude them from replying to say Thank You?

You converted me to the word 'elder' a long time ago and I correct anyone who uses the word 'elderly' in my presence.

Habit is pervasive and if we all speak out we can change the way people refer to us.

It is especially important to let the media know that 'elder' is the preferred word. The correct word can become the normal term if it is constantly heard. Good for you, Ronni, by letting one of the most powerful newspapers know they are using a word incorrectly.

Senior Citizen is still used far too often.

Your letter is an ode to the power of words. "Elder" does indeed carry the idea of respect for the individual's value to society. Addition of the "ly" connotes a drain on society or a problem to be solved.

Thanks. Do I have permission to use this post, with appropriate credit cited, when I want to fire off a round against the use of the "ly"?

Hooray for you, Ronni. It is one of my pet peeves, too!!

Always makes me wonder how old editors are, and how old the writers of articles are. And why it hasn't sunk into their brains yet that we "elders" are frequently their bosses - and also frequently their readers.

Perhaps we should also be contacting those 'bosses' with copies of the letters we send to their editors and writers, just to see if that kicks a little a** and creats an 'Ah-Ha!' moment for anyone!

I agree. Tho I don't object to the word "Senior," as I am certainly senior to my grandkids, I too find "elderly" an elderly term that no longer applies.

Yup I hope they reply too.

Yay!! Good for you.

Great! Thank you so much for posting this. If we need a letter campaign, I'd be glad to join it.

Terrific letter...Thanks!

BTW--I'm unable to open today's "elder" story...

Linda Skupien...
In such circumstances as this, you and everyone have permission to use what I've written any way you want (without changing the meaning).

Credit is welcome, but not necessary. Righting a wrong is the goal.

Great letter, Ronni, I'm with you. As your examples show, the world "Elder" denotes respect while "elderly" does not.

And that JELL-O crack was uncalled for, Gail Collins should be ashamed of herself.

I've adopted "elder," though where I live that means any male Mormon 19 or older, or tribal elders. I just keep hammering away, though. I also shun "senior" when I can, which is hard when talking about senior centers. Another term I use is "older adults," which works in context.

BTW, I wrote Arthur Brisbane some time ago to protest the NYTimes' insistence on up-casing tea party, which gave it in my opinion unwarranted legitimacy, as it had no platform, no leadership, no accountability and no FEC disclosure requirements. The answer? A subeditor of Brisbane's condescendingly told me I should liken Tea Party to Impressionism. Oh please.

Ronni-

I am offended by any term that refers - and doesn't define - those of any group.

However, "Pre-teen does". "Adolescent" does. "Twenty something" does. (You get the idea).

Referring to a large, undefined, population of people with the word "elderly" doesn't cut it with me.

Can you, or any of your readers, say that elderly - or "Seniors" - means those over 55? Or is it word reserved only for those who have certain in-competencies resulted from aging; ie, bad vision, hearing, memory? How many of those must you have to be defined as such?

Clearly there are those among us over 55 that haven't any of these symptoms of ageing. Yet others want to refer to us as eldely, senior, old person, otherwise age impaired.

So why should we be categorized as such?

What do you think?

Here's what I think, hjhood:

You're nitpicking and remind me a bit of the uniquely American perspective, in some circles, that "death is optional."

There are many reasons - cultural, social, political, economic, governmental and more - for the need to describe people by their various age groups. The entire point of "elder" over "elderly" is to remove the suggestion of debility which applies to some old people but certainly not all or even most. Although, eventually, everyone exhibits symptoms of decline.

But old is not a health condition; it is a place on the timeline of life - toward the end.

That's what I think, anyway.

Yes, language is important. I'm glad you are doing this.

Hear hear! After all, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. I think Mark Twain said that first. Elder is far less condescending than "elderLY." Great letter!

I favor "fully mature adult," but that's just a little too much of a mouthful. (and a few of us geezers don't mind geezer)

Being old isn't a character flaw, rather it's a position of privilege, of awe, of unique historical content.

I love old cheddar, the authentic old cheddar.

The word "elderly" conjures up a person or people limping around, forgetting which end is up.

It's not about the number. It's about the capability.

Infant, toddler, pre-schooler, pre-teen, teenager, young adult, middle aged, senior, elder and ? "What's in a name, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" Or as my uncle Bill would say, "Call me anything, just don't call me late for breakfast"
But I do agree that at a mere 77, I'm not comfortable with the epithet "elderly' but I'm rather fond of "dirty old man".

Great letter. Your points are crystal clear, well supported and of course as an elder, I do fully agree with them.

Your points were exquisite, clear, and to the point.

Thank you Ronnie

Bridgemor

Terrific letter!! I, too, would be willing to join a letter-writing blitz if needed to get the attention of Mr. Brisbane and his writers. It's very disappointing that NYT "elder specialist" Gail Collins made the Jell-O remark--they probably figured we'd be too busy doddering to notice it. I've never liked the word elderLY, with its connotations of frailty and disability. At almost 75, I'm neither frail nor disabled at the moment. Even if I were, is it really necessary to be reminded of it constantly? "Elder" connotes the wisdom and judgment born of experience.

Personally I prefer "older person" or "older American" but elder also works for me. There's definitely power in language, and we older Americans are badly in need of an update in the way we are described and portrayed in the print media (don't even get me started on how we're shown on TV and in the movies!).

Oops, correction in order! Gail Collins isn't billed as the NYT elder specialist as I noted above. Her specialty is women's issues--which, of course, is absolutely related to getting older when we stop to think about it Still, the Jell-O remark has got to go.

OK! Hello Elders:

Anyone older than (your guess) is now referred to as an elder - hopefully not elderly. If s/he walks like an elder, talks like an elder, and looks older - "it's an Elder" Hope that doesn't offend anyone - - but me.

"You can me and Uncle Bob anything - just don't call us late for dinner!"

Brava, Ronni!
My father has been dead for 15 years but would detest any “euphemisms” as he termed them (seniors, elderly, pensioners) for what he was.
"I am old, O-L-D," he'd say "and what's wrong with the word? No one wants to use it, it's a lovely word."
XO
WWW

I just cannot get excited about the use of elderly. It is like worrying about how the chairs are arranged on the Titanic---I would rather see efforts expended on real issues impacting the old.

BTW, grammatically speaking "elderly" makes just about as much sense as "youngerly"! Let's get rid of it!

Wonderful letter Ronni. Perhaps you already know about the Journalists Exchange on Aging Survey on Style conducted in 2007 by Paul Kleyman who was then associated with American Society on Aging. It's available as a pdf whose title is agebeatsurvey.pdf. I am using older adult and elder. Elderly connotes infirmity.

Am glad to see you writing again on the language of aging -- was beginning to think you had veered away from that focus here.

Superb letter to NYT! I'll be looking forward to reading what, if any, sort of response you receive. In fact, maybe the nudge of a few letters of inquiry on the issue from your readers might accentuate a need for attention -- or not!

Since you long ago raised the question here about terms to define us as we age I've accepted your premise that "elder" is most appropriate. I'm also partial to "old" and "older" but dislike "senior" as sounding academic - suggesting school and college.

"Elderly" is a very limiting -- even misleading -- term if applied to all older people 50 years and above. Aging encompasses a broad range of factors. To dismiss all older people as being debilitated, as "elderly" implies, is a misuse of language.

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