What shall we call the elderly, if not elderly?

15th March 2013 | Posted in Mature marketing

So now there’s elderly, and then there’s elderly.

Or, to quote AgeUK, the old and the oldest old. The UK charity has just written a report about changes in our society. Today we have so many people living so long that we are coining new phrases to describe the 85+ group. And the oldest old clearly have different needs and aspirations to the younger old.

While some of the leading UK thinkers on ageing may be coming up with new descriptions, for most people, the word is still elderly. But it’s a word that’s not much appreciated by those who are labelled by it.

In the last week there’s been plenty of discussion about this tag, especially in the US press. There was something of a stink raised when a practising midwife was described as elderly in an NPR headline just because she was 71. This led NPR to change the headline and follow it up with a blog on the subject, and the Washington Post amongst others to also start mulling the true meaning of the word.

When I followed up a news story recently about an elderly man being threatened in a shop, it turned out that this victim was 61. We’ll all be a long time elderly in the eyes of that reporter. Then there was the reported tale in the UK of the elderly chap causing chaos with a mobility scooter. He too was “in his 60s”.

Following these discussions reminded me that few years ago there was a campaign to remove the UK road sign that depicted two fragile-looking stooped characters – one with a walking stick – that warned motorists that there were elderly pedestrians at large in the road ahead. This characterisation was demeaning, people argued.

I’ve just checked, and the road sign is still in the Highway Code. But instead of using the word elderly, it talks about frail and possibly blind or disabled instead. Sorry people – you’re labelled too now.

As content director and co-founder of When They Get Older, a web site for people wanting to help their ageing parents, I find myself wrestling with that elderly word article after article, story after story.

I’d like to use as many other terms as possible that don’t conjure up visions of all the downsides of getting older, but frankly we’re rather stuck with it. When we search for news and views about ageing parents, the word that turns up the most results by far is elderly. If we want our web site to rank highly in search engines, it’s a word we can’t get away from. But it feels just that tad patronising, almost critical, and goes nowhere to describe a highly varied population.

If you follow the word elderly on Twitter, you get a bizarre mix of people adoring those elderlies, others complaining about them, and the odd bit of interesting news. Much of the media uses it emotively to suggest vulnerable, aiming to whip up greater outrage about scammers, muggers and poor service from the state and the NHS. On the other hand, elderly and driving together in a story is usually bad publicity for the older motorist.

It’s a word that’s got both sentimental and critical associations – far more than being a dispassionate way of describing a subset of our population.

So if we don’t like elderly, what else can we say? We often use ageing on When They Get Older, to describe the process rather than an end result. In the US “seniors” is often a preferred term, but it’s not one we use much in the UK.

Microsoft’s thesaurus throws up “old”, “aged”, “mature” and “of advanced years”. We’ve been known to talk about our “aged parents” before, affectionately rather than in a depressing way. We know that the next generation have for a while now been talking about us as “parentals”, and we in turn have started saying “elderly ‘rentals”. Again in jest. We can’t use it here in articles.

So – any suggestions? What is a respectful but not pompous way to describe people who could be any age over say 70, who could range from marathon runners to housebound, and are all very different?

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