Age matters, but so do words.

While pundits debate President Joe Biden’s cognitive fitness for office and the possible motivations behind prejudicial language contained in special counsel Robert K. Hur’s classified documents report, the rest of us have a different problem: the “elderly.”

Older people themselves aren’t the issue, but the way we talk about them is. We must change the language our society uses to describe older adults.

Among the ageist stereotypes in Hur’s characterization of Biden as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” the word “elderly” leaps out as most cringe-worthy in its power to conjure images of frailty and helplessness.

Many of us who study aging avoid “senior citizen” and “elderly,” which can reinforce negative stereotypes that isolate old people as a different and separate social group.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the seemingly respectable “senior citizen” an “unfortunate phrase suggesting a large boy scout with a gold watch.” But just because “elderly” is so ubiquitous doesn’t make it appropriate or innocuous.


Ageism remains a widely accepted prejudice. I love late-night talk shows, yet a sampling of hosts’ recent monologues reveals rampant jokes targeted toward old people (yes, I’m looking at you, Stephen Colbert ). Ageism defies political persuasion, as one can see in Nikki Haley’s “ grumpy old men ” campaign, which takes cheap shots at Biden’s and Donald Trump’s ages. Picking on older people doesn’t seem to stir the same type of outrage as insults about other social identities such as race, ethnicity and gender.

The issue of ageism surged during the pandemic, with COVID-19’s disparaging nickname “ Boomer Remover ” trending on social media. But childish laughs and complacent language hurt everyone, exacerbating social exclusion and age discrimination and instilling a fear of growing older. Internalized ageism, prevalent among older adults, is associated with negative health outcomes including lower life expectancy, high blood pressure and reduced self-esteem.

Culture change is hard and progresses at a glacial pace. But as our older adult population swells, the rest of us must catch up with choosing age-inclusive language. Content producers can take the lead in mitigating ageist portrayals, but everyone should scrutinize the language we use.

Recent revisions to the Associated Press style guide, drawing on guidance from the American Geriatrics Society, offer a good start to writing about older people with greater specificity, accuracy and respect. In addition to retiring “elderly” and “senior citizen,” the AP suggests using “older adults” or “older person/people” in general phrases and employing more precise age ranges when it’s possible, such as “new housing for people 65 and over.”

I’ve wrestled with decisions around language to describe the older adults I write about in my forthcoming book. I don’t use “elderly” but I’ve come to use “elder,” inspired by geriatrician Louise Aronson’s reclaiming of the word to connote respect for people over age 65. I also don’t treat “old” like a dirty word to avoid. As someone who lost my mother to an early death from cancer at age 53, I hope to live long enough to grow “old.”

We can look to recent debates over inclusive language when describing race, ethnicity and gender as precedents for how making simple tweaks to our language around age can benefit older people. Just as we can capitalize “Black,” adopt they/them pronouns, and use “Latine/x,” we can adjust how we refer to old people.

So the next time you chuckle at a quip or a stereotype about an older person, consider this: Depending on your age, you’re either stoking the flames of self-loathing or laughing at your future self. Either way, the joke is on you.


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