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How should we refer to old people?

14/08/2012

A recent UK survey found that the term elderly was disliked by 97 per cent of over-65s. They don’t want to be called old age pensioner either and senior citizen was liked by only 40 per cent. Furthermore, we tend to think of old as 10 years older than we are, whatever number that may be.

So from time to time, someone will try to introduce a more neutral term such as retired person or  grey nomad. In the US, they’ve experimented with some wild new descriptions of older generations. Terms such as boomers and zoomers, the wellderly, gerries (from geriatrics), and middle-esecence and second halfers. The fact that all of these sound either comical or nauseating shows what a minefield it is.

So how should we refer to older people? (The politically correct term in the UK). Older people is just about the only acceptable way of referring to the over-65s, presumably because it could mean older than a class of 10 year-olds. But it leaves open the possibility that you’re actually talking about teenagers. I wouldn’t bet, though, against the word older becoming associated with dependence, vulnerability and decay before too long.

The problem isn’t with words, it’s with attitudes. We live in a world that so glorifies youth that, in many spheres, older starts at 50. However, when it often ends beyond 100, this is a bit like lumping together a four-year-old and a 48-year-old and saying they’re all part of the same group.

Even if you’re talking solely about over-65s, the reality is that people become more different as they get older, not less so. Older people are individuals with different politics, values, principles and desires, who derive their identity from family, work, beliefs and responsibilities, from the places where they live and much else besides, most of it very little to do with age. As someone once said, “Once you’ve seen one 80 year-old, you’ve seen one 80 year-old.”

What do you think?

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