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An Age-Old Problem: Who Is 'Elderly'?

When exactly does someone become elderly?

A recent New York Times story calls a 69-year-old woman elderly. Philadelphia Metro considers 70 to be elderly. When NPR ran a story recently about a 71-year-old midwife, some readers objected to the word "elderly" in the original headline.

One commenter responded: "REALLY?!? 'ELDERLY MIDWIFE'?! She's 71 and delivering babies! There's nothing elderly about her, and these days, not even her age!"

Another wrote: "I was 70 in Feb and I certainly do not feel elderly ... Elderly is at least over 80 and as someone else suggested maybe 95."

Editors decided to change the headline. And eventually, NPR's ombudsman weighed in on the "elderly" issue.

In the same way other words have morphed in widespread acceptability — handicapped to disabled; Oriental to Asian; retarded to mentally challenged, and even those words are still in flux — elderly is becoming politically (and politely) incorrect. Certain terms apparently have term limits.

Past Middle Age

"Nobody likes to think of themselves as old, let alone very old," says Michael Vuolo, co-host of Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast. " 'Elderly' often carries the connotation of feeble and dependent. Which is offensive if you're not and condescendingly euphemistic if you are."

The objection he has observed most often with regard to the phrase "the elderly," Vuolo says, "is similar to that of 'the deaf' or 'the disabled.' A construction like that creates a category without acknowledging that the category is composed of individuals. In other words, it's impersonal and other-ing. It's a bit like saying 'those people.' "

Just how old is elderly? "Rather old," according to Merriam-Webster, who doesn't really help matters. "Being past middle age."

Elderly is an old adjective dating back hundreds of years. It comes from an even older noun, elder, which the Oxford English Dictionary traces to the 10th century and defines as "in a wider sense, a predecessor, one who lived in former days."

In many circles, the word "elder" is a vaunted title of veneration. We are told to respect our elders. We look up to elder statesmen. We bow down before tribal elders.

To this day, certain religious groups, such as Presbyterians, elect "elders" to lead their congregations. Church elders can be young; they can be male or female. Similarly, many cities are run by aldermen — the British way of saying elder men. Aldermen can also be various ages and genders.

Where Earth Meets Sky

The word was not always so objectionable. In early 20th century America, "elderly" was socially preferable to the word "old."

"We like your use of the word elderly," observed Atlanta Constitution advice columnist Dr. William Brady in 1918. "Maybe we would have more friends now if we had not insisted upon anything old when we meant elderly."

But by 1956, some Americans were bristling at the description. When a 20-year-old girl referred to a 40-year-old man as "elderly" in a Washington Post story, readers reacted. The paper published the executive editor's advice to his staff about usage of the word. "A lot of us old folks in our 50s do not like to be called elderly," the editor opined. "When you are a great deal older than you are now, you will discover that the time a man becomes elderly is exactly like the place where the earth and sky meet."

He added, "When you are 16 you wonder how an old man of 30 manages to drag himself around. When you get to be 30 you feel that 60 is as old as Methuselah. When you get to be 60 you will think that the 'aged' are those in their 90s."

Now, 57 years later, the Washington Post is still wrestling with the question. A recent headline referred to a 68-year-old man as "elderly." Readers reacted.

"I hardly consider it apt," one letter-to-the-editor writer observed.

"What's wrong with being 'elderly'?" countered another reader. "Our society will forgo our fetish with youth only when we learn to embrace our age and the many descriptions of it, including 'mature,' 'well-seasoned' and 'elderly.' "

As Old As You Feel

The national longing for longevity is reaching new levels. Researchers tell us that 90 is the new 50. More and more products are created to make older people look and feel like younger people. And so the Elderly Line continues to shift, mirage-like, in the desert sand.

The wisest American elders may never agree on who is elderly and who is not. In Rhode Island public agencies, elderly officially begins at 60. In Hawaii, it arrives at 55. On a national note, the IRS Tax Counseling for the Elderly program offers free tax advice to anyone 60 or older.

In the end, "elderly" may be more a state of being — or feeling — than a certain age. And the question may not be whether someone else thinks of you as elderly, but whether you think of yourself as elderly.

Jon Carroll, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has been referring to himself as an "elderly man" for 20 years or so. "Sometimes I feel more elderly than others," says Carroll, who is 69. "I don't flinch anymore at 'elderly' or 'old'; I flinch more at euphemisms like 'senior citizen' or 'golden years.' "

He believes that it's important for older people "to take back the words for 'old' — another good word — and take the sting out of them. It's OK to be old."

And, at the same time, it is worthwhile and sobering to remember that, tragically, many people never even get the opportunity to grow old.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.