A few weeks ago, I was listening to the 6:00 news when my ears pricked up on a story about an “elderly” woman who was in a serious car accident. The report went on to talk about “the 72-year-old woman”. My first reaction of course was compassion and sympathy for the poor lady and her family, but my second reaction was: “Hold the presses! Since when is 72 elderly?”
I would not be a gentleman if I openly divulged my mother’s age to explain why this resonated so strongly, but let’s just say, I’m 50… you can do the math.
When Mom and I chatted that evening, she started talking about a news item that hit close to home and I completed her sentence with, “…about the ‘elderly’ 72 year old?” She said yes.
Later that evening, I wondered why that choice of words in particular elicited a reaction from both of us. I checked a few online dictionaries for a textbook definition of elderly and to my surprise, the consensus seems to read that it is the time after middle age but without any further elaboration.
This came as a relief because most of the septuagenarians I know are looking pretty darn chipper, enjoying a great quality of life and living longer, healthier lives.
I was also reassured that it was not just us who had an inkling that the word elderly seemed a tad inappropriate when I read a great NPR article by Linton Weeks called “An Age-Old Problem: ‘Who Is Elderly’?”
Mr. Weeks traces back the roots of the word to the 10th century, as suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary and defined as ‘in a wider sense, a predecessor, one who lived in former days’.” For centuries, the term elder commanded respect and reverence for their knowledge and wisdom.
But I think Mr. Weeks hits the nail on the head in quoting Michael Vuolo, co-host of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast: “ ‘Elderly’ often carries the connotation of feeble and dependent,” perhaps the reason why the word elderly raises eyebrows by vibrant 70-year-olds and those who love them.
Is this a case of language not yet catching up to the reality of contemporary paradigms? Will the generation of active baby boomers be the pioneers to break through and redefine what it means to be “senior” and “elderly” and helping drop the negative connotation?
For all the things our engaged 70-year-olds do as volunteers, community builders, teachers, mentors, coaches, artists, writers, who share knowledge, wisdom, and ultimately, their love, they definitely deserve our respect and reverence.
We need to recognize the light that all of our elders offer along with their kindness and generosity, and do everything we can to keep those lights shining brightly, whether they consider themselves “elderly” or not.
Is it language that needs to catch up or is it our collective mindsets need to catch up and drop the negative connotation? Perhaps it is a bit of both. Either way, let’s not apply a label that could potentially hinder the great energy that they project which can serve to help and to inspire.
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