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Is 'Elderly' offensive?

Published on 12 April 2019 01:43 PM

Is the language that we use to describe older people offensive?

In 1995, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of Older Persons rejected the term elderly in preference for ‘older persons’. Over twenty years later, is it time for the rest of us to do the same?

Descriptors such as ‘elderly’, ‘aged’, and ‘senior’ are common in media reports surrounding older people, but anti-ageism campaigners are warning that such language can cause discrimination.

With advancements and improvements to healthcare, British people are living longer than ever - in their most recent overview of the UK population, the Office of National Statistics predicted that within ten years, over a fifth of the British population will be aged sixty five or over. In addition to this, though, we are also healthier than ever, with around 64% of that same age group engaging in physical activity on a daily basis, thanks in part due to schemes such as our own Active Age service. Because of this, anti-ageism advocates are campaigning for an overhaul of the language we use when discussing older people, and the removal of words such as ‘elderly’, ‘aged’, and ‘senior’, which they argue  fail to suggest the variety of difference experiences and abilities of older people, and falsely present older people as frail, immobile, and burdensome.

There have been similar changes in disability activism communities over the past few years, with a focus on moving ‘person-first’ language, which seeks to recognise people before recognising any disabilities. This might involve describing someone as ‘a person with disabilities’, as opposed to a ‘disabled person’. Other examples include descriptions of people ‘living with’ a condition (such as dementia), as opposed to ‘suffering with’, since the latter can often present the person as a victim (even when they do not feel like one).

Such attempts at more inclusive language have been met with resistance by some. When a local council urged its workers to ditch words like ‘elderly’ in 2014, their efforts were branded as ‘ridiculous taxpayer-funded pointless pontification', and one sixty four year old woman we spoke to, Julie Bradley, told us:

“I don’t find it patronising to be referred to as old. I am old. You are what you are.” 

Yet many older people themselves have spoken on how they don’t feel that the term ‘elderly’, applies to them. Studies have shown that people often ‘feel’ much younger than they are, and that people over fifty especially, do not feel ‘old’. Sixty eight year old Sue Flemming told us:

“I am sixty eight; I don’t feel it, and am told I don’t look it. I don’t really know how you would define elderly – age is just a number, and you are only as old as you feel.”

This view was shared by fifty five year old Janet Grantham, who similarly said:

I'm fifty five and still class myself as young. I feel the term ‘elderly’ refers to people over eighty – although my Mum is ninety five and will still look at others and say 'look at that poor old dear'.”

These stereotypes, argue advocates, can contribute to damaging stereotypes, and in some cases negatively impact the employment prospects of older people who may be perfectly able, and eager, to carry on working, or volunteering. As such, they urge us to move towards more inclusive terminology. Dan Holden of the International Longevity Centre, summarised:

“Elderly is problematic because of its association with dependency and frailty, which typecasts whole generations. Although it is natural that we refer to people in groups by their age, chronological age is a poor guide to understand any given person; their health, their personality and their experience. It’s not perfect, but a more neutral term like “older people” is more neutral and goes some way to addressing the stereotyping of this age group.”

Regardless of your terminology preference, Age UK North Tyneside is working hard to ensure that older people are able to make the most of life. For information on the services we offer, please click here. Alternatively, contact our information and advice team at 0191 280 8484 (Option 1).

Header Image from WikiMedia Commons under Creative Copyright Licence.

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