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From Serving Iowa Elders for Over 20 Years

Who is Old?

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I have been searching for the meaning of the term defining “elderly person.” I wanted a consistent, well-defined term to use when discussing issues affecting the elderly in this blog. Instead I found a quagmire of ambiguous words and/or phrases that refer to the state of being “elderly” but do not give a specific enough definition to help clarify whom we as a society (or I as writer of a blog) are referring to when we discuss older people and issues affecting them.

Possible Words and Phrases Used Commonly Are:

Aged
Old
Older
Elder
Elderly
Senior
Senior Citizen
Elderly Person
Older
Pensioner
Retired Person
Retiree
Older Adult
Geriatric
Mature

This list is problematic in many ways. It contains words and phrases that cannot be precisely defined, are open to many interpretations, and include comparisons to nebulously defined terms. Finally, the words on this list attempt to define being older based upon three extremely different measures: 1.) Comparison to the definitions of other words 2.) References to the individual’s relationship to the workforce 3.) References to the individual’s chronological age. Thus, instead of clarifying what it means to be old, these words and phrases complicate the discussion.

Let’s look at each of these complications to identifying a precise definition for the elderly person:

1. These words and phrases are open to many interpretations.

Most of these words are adjectives, not nouns. Even many of the nouns — Senior Citizen and Elderly Person — contain adjectives. Adjectives, by their nature, are subjective and not precise in nature. For instance, “old” is a relative word….What is “old?” Is it something from your grandmother’s era, from last year’s fashions, or from the Mesozoic Age? Items from all of these times could be called “old” but their true “ numerical age” is vastly different. The subjectivity of these words is in relation to other words. For example, something is “older” because it is “older” than something else. “Older” does not tell you the actual age. To add to the confusion, the “thing” to which “older” is being compared usually is not stated.

2. Some of these words and phrases only refers to a person’s relationship to work.

These are the words “Pensioner,” “Retiree,” and “Retired Persons.” As a society we sometimes make a judgement that being old means not participating in paid employment. Not participating in the work force can be due to positive reasons such as saving enough money to retire at an “acceptable” level of lifestyle. It can be due to negative reasons such as having a medical condition that stops a person from continuing to do his/her previous work. Thus, these words also are ambiguous and non-helpful in defining being “elderly.”

3. Some of these words only refer to an individual’s age.

It seems that when an entity such as a government or an organization defines “elderly,” it uses actual numerical age as the defining factor. Government entities such as the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization define “aged” in terms of numerical age when doing research or stating statistics. As numerical age is a well-defined, fixed term, the words and phrases for old based on numerical age should be the answer to our search for a consistent definition of old. But these words are still problematic. This is because different numerical ages for being old are used based upon the country or topic being researched or discussed. These ages range from 50 to age 65 as the cut off between “younger” and “older.”

Many organizations find that their chosen numerical age for being old is not specific enough because it only marks an age when old age starts. They seem to all assume that old age ends at death. This means individuals will vary in how long their “old age” lifespan is. Organizations and governments recognize that there is a huge time span between age 50 and age 116 (the oldest person recorded alive in 2016). Thus some organizations split the “elderly” into two groups depending on their numerical age…the old (being 50, 55, 60, or 65 years and older) and the oldest old (being 80 and over in years). This again complicates the discussion about aging.

A widely accepted numerical age that has been used for many years to distinguish being old from being young in the United States is the year which Americans can draw Social Security checks from the Federal Government. Using this numerical age is problematic also. The United States government originally chose the age 65 as the age the when Americans can draw a Social Security check but as Americans are living longer, the US government decided that this numerical age is too low. The Social Security Administration has administered a complicated step process where the retirement age for Americans rises every so many months depending upon the age in which a person is born. This makes even Social Security eligibility an ambiguous and moving number for the sake of the definition of being “old” in the United States.

What Conclusions Can Be Made:

There is no definitive word that means to be “old” and there is no agreement of when someone becomes “aged.” There are a quagmire of terms and varied numerical ages commonly used. Being older means different things to different people under different circumstances. Fortunately and unfortunately those circumstances are as varied and nebulous as the definition of old age. This helps explain why we have trouble grappling with “elderly” issues. It shows why it so hard to define the needs of the world’s “elderly” “retirees.” We can not even agree to whom we are referring. “Who is old?” is a question with many answers depending upon many variables. This is an unsatisfactory end to my quest for clarity but it appears to be the reality.

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