At what age is it proper to refer to someone as “elderly?” After a recent article I wrote, an outspoken reader let me know, in no uncertain terms, that it is never an acceptable term.
In my article, I described a 71-year-old woman as “elderly.” I meant no insult. Growing up, the word had replaced “old” as the preferred, non-offensive term. In my mind, it was akin to describing the blue sky, the hot sun, or the wet rain.
Boy, was I wrong.
“I can assure you that 71 is damned sure not elderly,” the reader e-mailed me. “Please drop that word from your vocabulary – or at least from your reporting.”
At first, I considered the condemnation of my word-choice to be the rantings of a singularly offended individual. The last line of her message, however, made me rethink the entire issue.
“I’ve written other reporters with other papers in the past to complain about this very thing,” the reader wrote, and I smiled at the thought of journalists nationwide receiving similar e-mails. “Most of them are very young, so I guess 71 could seem elderly to them, but you don’t have that excuse.”
I don't have that excuse? What could the reader have possibly meant by that crack, I wondered. I turned 50 this year; that's not old. My excuses are just as valid as those made by my under-30 colleagues, by golly. The nerve.
Then it hit me. The emotions stirred up by the reader's words; the experience of being grouped together by age, rather than by who I am, was exactly what I had inflicted upon the reader with just one word – “elderly.”
Having grown up in a time where the life expectancy for the average male was less than 70, and females averaged just over 75, to refer to a 71-year-old as elderly simply made sense. It never occurred to me how static my thought process had become, and that people nowadays regularly survive, and occasionally thrive, well into their 90's.
As a journalist, it is my responsibility to be aware of the effect my words have on people, regardless of the lexicon of my youth. The right phrase can uplift – the wrong word can devastate.
Words like “disabled” group people together out of convenience for those using the term, but insult the person referenced. Taking an iota of time, or space, to instead say “person with a disability” lets them know you see the person as a lot more than the disability. It's more than proper; it's the truth.
The word elderly is similar. It groups otherwise dissimilar people together. Moreover, it often carries a negative connotation that older people are incompetent, feeble, or “over the hill.”
It's all relative.
When I was a kid, I viewed my grandfather as a sage old man, sitting atop a mountain, ready to dispense words of wisdom and guide me through my childhood. At the time, he was only 10 years older than I am today.
At 18, I couldn't imagine being 30. When I reached 30, I pictured 50-year-olds as rocking-chair curmudgeons, predicting rain through the pain in their knees.
Now, at 50, I realize old age is a moving target.
It is a hard truth that I am not the man I was at 25. However, it is just as fair to say the man of 25 was nowhere near the man I have become. I'm older, grayer, and fatter for sure – but I'm also a lot wiser, much more patient, and less inclined to think the world revolves around me.
I apologize to, and thank, the reader who set me straight. “Elderly” is no longer part of my working vocabulary.
Age is just a number. I'll leave it at that.