Language can be complicated. Words that seemed appropriate when I was young are now considered politically incorrect. Word meanings change, and, like it or not, we sometimes need to purge our vocabulary to reflect those changes. 

Denotation is the dictionary definition of a world. If you look up elderly in a dictionary, you may find these descriptions

-old or aging ( Oxford Languages)

-rather old; being past middle age ( Merriam-Webster)

-used as a polite way of saying someone is old or becoming old (  Longman’s Online Dictionary)

-of or relating to persons in later life ( 

This is not so bad. I can handle being referred to as a person in later life now that I have three score under my belt. 

But hold on. Dictionary definitions, or denotative meanings, do not always convey accuracy. The word elderly carries a nasty little connotation that is offensive and creates a mental image of a small, thin woman tottering along the street holding a crooked cane about to be bowled over by the winter wind. Connotation reflects the feelings a word creates, and that changes with time. (Why is it our word meanings are changing faster every day? When did fat, wicked, and dope become good things?) So elderly is now elderly. The same is true for the word aged. No one wants to be considered aged. It even grinds against the ears to hear it spoken aloud. 

In fact, these words are now considered a form of ageism. Much like sexism and racism, ageism refers to age-related stereotyping or discrimination. As much as I rebel against the tendency of our culture to hijack perfectly good words, aged and elderly fail to show honor and respect due the generations of people who have survived disco and the 60s, for pity’s sake. 

Another term that was useful for a time but is fading into the pages of history is the word senior. Many organizations and businesses still use the term senior adults and senior living. These terms don’t seem quite as harsh, but when changed to senior citizen or describing senior moments, the implication is that of a mind ascramble with glitches. Not a pretty picture. 

The current appropriate term for my cronies/fogeys/ grannies/ peers and me is older adults or older persons. The phrases are accurate and untainted – for the moment. This may change tomorrow. 

I wish I could say I will always remember to use the correct terms in my writing and speech, but I know me; I have too many older person moments. 

Additional articles on this topic:

Vitality Living –  

Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy: October/December 2011 – Volume 34 – Issue 4 – p 153-154 

2 thoughts on “What should I call an older person?

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