Inside the Newsroom

News, commentary, insight on local happenings and fun from the staff of The Saline Reporter and Milan News-Leader.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Define Elderly

Had I known the adjective "elderly" was so offensive to so many people, particularly baby boomers, who make up the bulk of our readers, I probably would have thought longer than 15 seconds when writing a headline for last week's article on the murder of 63-year-old Robert Green of Saline.

When I received the first complaint Thursday morning, I was baffled and asked myself, "Is the term derogatory or ageist?" I didn't think that much of it when I wrote it. I figured it was like referring to a young adult as a teenager. I also wondered why the outrage in the community wasn't directed at the fact a murder had occurred, the first in Saline since 1981, rather than the fact the victim was described as elderly in the headline.

Initially, I thought maybe I had made a huge mistake. I looked up the word in the AP Stylebook, a style guide used by journalists. It warns to use the term carefully. I regretted that I hadn't looked it up before going to press, but, again, it didn't initially strike me as anything other than a word to describe an older adult.

Two more phone calls came in from readers complaining that it was offensive. The next day, two e-mails came in. That's when I decided to do a google search. What I found made me feel a little better and that I shouldn't be required the wear a shirt bearing the letter "A" on it for ageist.

The term isn't universally considered offensive, thank goodness. In fact, most define elderly as adults 65 and older and some define it as 60 and older, so I was in the right range.
The U.S. government defines elderly as "a person greater than or equal to 65 years of age" and has set that age for purposes of government subsidy and retirement. In addition, the publication "Therapeutic Applications of NSAIDs" reports it's "customary to refer to those 65 and older as elderly."

According to the publication "Communication and Aging," it's not an ageist term, which cited ageist terms as "old bag" "coot," "granny," "old maid" and "hag."
But the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse reports phrases like “our seniors," "the elderly" or "your loved one" can be ageist. "These terms treat older people as they are someone's property, possessions or objects, not as individuals," it states. I never thought of it that way.

I discovered there are two sets of elderly: Those considered "young elderly" are 65 through 74 and the "intermediate elderly" are 75 through 84, according to several medical Web sites.

I also found that nearly 35 million Americans are 65 years and older, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and that number is expected to double by 2030 to 20 percent of the population. That got me to thinking of other things I've heard, such as 40 is the new 30, which means 65 is the new 55, and maybe age is simply a state of mind.

So as the population ages and baby boomers remain active mentally and physically, the term "elderly" should, indeed, be used more carefully, sparingly and sensitively, keeping in mind we are as old as we feel and many older adults do not feel "elderly."

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Blogger Elizabeth said...

Sorry - but anytime I see a person in their 60s described as "elderly" I think that the paper must be hiring 11 year olds - and not supervising them properly. Actually what I think is "are you high?". I swear that it's happening less frequently in my neck of the woods - probably because of a backlash such as you describe.

February 12, 2011 at 8:59 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I agree with Elizabeth. Every time I see a journalist use the term "elderly" for someone in their 60's, I think it is time they had their nappy (I think the yanks call them diapers) changed.

April 3, 2011 at 6:29 PM  

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