When does someone get old? (2023)


It's surprisingly difficult to find a good term for elderly people.

VonJoe Pinsker
When does someone get old? (1)
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Once people pass middle age, they get old. That's how life works: you're young, you're middle-aged, and then you're old.

Call someone, of coursealternativeit is generally not considered polite, as the word, however accurate, is often considered derogatory. It's a label people tend to avoid: the 2016 Marist surveyasked American adultswhether they thought a 65 year old would be old enough. Sixty percent of younger respondents - those aged between 18 and 29 - said yes, but that percentage declined as respondents got older; only 16% of adults over 60 made similar judgments. The closer people get to old age, the later they think it is starting.

Overall, two-thirds of Marist survey participants considered 65 to be "middle-aged" or even "young." These classifications are somewhat confusing, as old age must beginsometimes. "I wouldn't say [65] is old," says Susan Jacoby, author ofNever Say Die: O Myth and o Marketing from Nova Era, "but I know it's not middle age - how many 130 year olds do you see walking around?"

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The wordalternative, with its connotations of decay and obsolescence, fails to capture the many different arcs that a human life after middle age can traverse. This language load increased with the increase in average life expectancy andespecially for richer people, healthier. "Older adults now have a diverse range of life experiences of all ages," Ina Jaffe, an NPR reporter who covers aging, said via email. “Some work, some are retired, some go to the gym every day, some have chronic disabilities. Some travel the world, others raise grandchildren and represent up to three different generations. There is no term that evokes this diversity.”

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So if 65-year-olds - or 75- or 85-year-olds - aren't "old", then what are? As Jaffe's formulation suggests, American English speakers converge on a very similar response.alternativebut added another syllable as a crucial softener:older.The word is gaining in popularity, not because it's perfect - it comes with its own problems - but because it appears to be the least imperfect of the many descriptors available to English speakers.

In general, these terms tend to be loaded or outdated. To takeSenior, for example. "Senioris one of the most common euphemisms for old people and the one I hate the most,” Jacoby told me. To her,Seniorit implies that people who receive the label are different from and somehow inferior to those who do not. “Think of 18- to 25-year-old voters… imagine a newspaper calling youjuniorsinstead of young voters,” she said. (The word, of courseSeniorcan also be used to denote experience and give prestige - as inSenior Vice President of Marketing-- but not all older people interpret it that way in the context of adult life.) Additional knocks to the term are its potential ambiguity (inconveniently, it's also the term for fourth-year high school students) and frequent vagueness (it's often paired with with the wordcitizens, although not every senior US resident is a US citizen).

About that,old, a term that was more common a generation ago, is hardly neutral - it's often associated with frailty and limitation, and older people often don't identify with it. "If you ask a group of people at a seniors center who is a member of the 'elders,' they might get reluctant hands or no hands at all," Clara Berridge, a gerontologist at the University of Washington School of Social Work. , said an E-Mail. "The fact that people don't voluntarily refer to that term is a strong reason not to apply it to them."

Other less common words do not seem suitable for everyday use either.agingit's precise but vague - everyone ages all the time.Pensionerdoes not apply to an elderly person who has never worked or has not stopped working and may also indicate that a person's employment status is their defining characteristic.geriatricsit's accurate, but it sounds too clinical.oldercan be appropriative – the word is common in someNative AmericanEafro-americano communities– and furthermore, in people who don’t have it, it can mean wisdom.

Euphemisms are also clearly out of the question: references to the "golden years" and the elderly as "wise" or "superadults" try to gloss over the realities of old age. "Phrases like '70 is the new 50' reflect a 'positive aging' discourse, suggesting that the preferred way to age is not to be old, but rather some image of the functionality and appearance of the old to maintain middle age. ' Berridge he wrotea 2017 scholarly paper she co-authored.

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Naturally,alternativehas not been completely eliminated. In fact, it was popular with some of the experts I spoke with, who weren't intimidated. "Actually, I think those of us who are in our 60s and older should catch upalternative' Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University, told me. "[For] someone like me who has lived at least two-thirds of my natural life, I don't mind being called old, but I understand that it has connotations for people."

These "connotations" give a reason why the range of terms mentioned above is insufficient and why a better word than that is sought after.alternativeit is not an unnecessary concession to the sensibilities of older people: language cannot eliminate social prejudices against aging. "I would argue that the reason there is no consensus on a preferred term has everything to do with ageism and not because the terms themselves are problematic," Elana Buch, an anthropologist at the University of Iowa, said in an email. "As long as being 'old' is something to be avoided at all costs (literally 'anti-aging' is a multi-billion dollar industry), people will want to avoid being identified as such."


Buch is aware of these biases and favors the termsolder adultsEold peopleboth in academic writing and in everyday conversation, stating that these sentences are "simple, descriptive and emphasize the personality/adulthood of the individuals described". Pillemer similarly argued: In contrast to other categories and labelsolderis a description that “people can move into without seeming like an entirely different category of people.”

"I think we're going to see a movement almost exclusively aimed at 'older adults' or 'older people,'" Pillemer said. "I don't know anyone, whether in law, professional gerontology or personally, who finds these terms offensive."

This movement has already begun. Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and author, told me that the phraseolder adultshas become much more common over the last 15 years, during which timeSeniorESeniorsaw a sharp decline in usage. That's according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a database of more than 600 million words from newspapers, novels, speeches and other sources that Stamper says provides a "quick overview of modern American English". The database also shows thisold,tires, Eaginghave become increasingly popular over the past 30 years.

Olderit may prevail because it seems to irritate the fewest people. Ina Jaffe, the NPR journalist, found early on in her coverage of old age that people reacted strongly to the variety of languages ​​available. A few years ago, she was curious to get a better sense of what terms people liked and disliked.helped organize a poll on the NPR websiteget opinions.older adultwas “the winner . Only 43% of them said they liked it," she explained on air.olderESeniorhad about 30 percent approval ratings.

"I've come to the conclusion that there's not a good term for older adults than, well,older adults' Jaffe told me recently. Other leading linguists have come to the same conclusion.Olderit has become the preferred nomenclature in many academic journals and dictionary definitions.Die New York Timessays style book about the wordold, "Use this vague term with caution" and advises: "For general references, seeolder adults, or, in moderation,Elderly.” Juliana Horowitz, a researcher at the Pew Research Center, which often segments its respondents based on demographics, said the organization tends to agree.older adults.

(A popular alternative, of course, is to forego broad labels and state the age involved. Pew often mentions age limits for its generational cohorts and theNew York Timesfavorite style bookpeople in their 70sorpeople over 80Forold. Referring to a broader group: “A term we use a lot ispeople over 50and orpeople over 50said Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP. "It is factual and reasonable.")

OlderIt's not without its downsides, however. First, it's not common to say "younger people", just "young people" - a strange asymmetry and an implicit acknowledgment of it.selvadoes not carry unpleasant associations likealternativehe does. Second, it's a relative term with no clear comparison: older... than who, exactly? And third, as Berridge the gerontologist has pointed out, "'older adult' implies younger adulthood as an unspoken norm." looks."

Replacement for all these existing terms—olderas well as the words it is gradually replacing – have been suggested over the years. Gerontological researchers have distinguished between the two for at least a few decades.young old(generally those in their 60s and 70s) and thoseall all(Definitions vary, but 85 and above is common.) Another academic term isthird Age, which refers to the period after retirement, but beforefourth ageof frailty and decline (which some would argue would unfairly legitimize distinctions based on physical ability).perennial plants, an inventive plant-inspired label designed to convey lasting value and constant renewal, is another contender.

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But none of it caught outside the realmsScientific researchEopinion articles. "If I had to pick a way for language to gallop," said Stamper, the lexicographer, "then my guess isolderis probably the word we're going to use by default because we didn't take any of these other brands and run them.

In the absence of an adherent neologismolderis a more or less satisfactory solution to this linguistic problem. But this adjective, like any other term associated with age, says nothing about how old people must be for it to be applied to them. Attempts to discover this strike at the very essence of the later stages of life.

Policymakers have their own limited response. "In the world of research and policy, [65] is the number people use to delineate old age," says Laura Carstensen, director of the Longevity Center at Stanford University. "It's been developed: you're eligible for Social Security, you're eligible for Medicare... and the research literature is focused on people age 65 and older. While 65 doesn't mean anything in a real way, it does represent real things. ”

But that number, 65, is more or less arbitrary - there's certainly no biological basis for it. "For policy planning purposes, 'over 75' is a much more significant demographic than 'over 65,'" says Karl Pillemer. Statistically, this is the age when people are significantly more likely to develop a chronic illness, he notes. "People between 65 and 75 tend to be more like middle-aged people."

Even so, focusing on a specific number feels wrong. "A chronological age of 65 is a pretty bad standard for just about everything," says Carstensen. “Take two 65-year-olds … One could [have dementia] and the other could be a Supreme Court justice. So it doesn't say much.”

The choice of other delimiters - perhaps employment status or dependency on caregivers - can circumvent the problem raised by Carstensen, but it can introduce other problems; These two examples, in particular, would run the risk of unduly emphasizing people's ability to work or live independently.

Ideally, a definition of old age would convey a sense that things are ending, or at least coming to an end. All those people who call 65 "middle age" aren't being delusional - they probably just don't want to be denied their right to have ambitions and plans for the stretch of their life yet to come, even if that stretch is much shorter. than those behind them.

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Susan Jacoby, author ofnever say die, has proposed a definition of age that gracefully addresses this. She told me she made lifelong friends in her 20s, some of whom were 10 or 15 years her senior while working atWashington Post. Now that she is 74, she is faced with obituaries of those old friends. "What I consider old is an age when you start to see people you know in the obituary column," she told me. "I think of midlife as a time when you're not afraid to look at obituaries, assuming you won't know people who have died." While her definition doesn't help us figure out how to relate to others, she is relevant, personable, and flexible—and is likely to age well.


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