Skip to main content

Descriptive terms for older people: older is in and elderly is out



"Never be the first to use a new descriptive term for older people nor the last to give up an old one." 
This is the advice given by Laura Morrison and colleagues in the discussion section of a fascinating new study published in JAGS this week.  The authors looked at how "older people" are described in the English-language medical literature from 1950 to 2015. Specifically they looked at the use of the terms “geriatric,” “aged,” “old,” “older,” and “elderly” in Pubmed.

Here is what they found:
  • We liked using the term “aged” in publications before 1961, but "aged" quickly lost its appeal over the next decade
  • “Geriatric” became more common from 1955 to 1976 but again fell out of favor over the last couple decades 
  • “Elderly” peaked around the time of George Michael's release of "Father Figure" (I'm not sure if there was a connection between the two)
  • “Older" hit its low point in 1962 but boomed in use with the boomers, and is now our most popular term accounting for 55% of references

Alex Smith wrote about this topic in 2012, which garnered quite a bit of comments when he also advocated for the word senior (which was surprisingly lacking in this current study).   In the end, there isn't really a right answer as language continues to evolve.

So it I'll end this post with a quote from the article that should give us pause for advocating for any particular word to passionately:
"The meanings of many words shift with time. Unfortunately, of the categories that linguists use to classify such semantic changes, “degeneration (pejoration)”—the acquisition of more-negative or more-disparaging connotations with time—best describes the changes of many words pertaining to older people."

 by: Eric Widera (@ewidera)



Comments

Helen Chen, MD said…
I still have fondness for the term "elders" because to me that connotes wisdom and respect. However, I'm told that some of our folks don't like that either (and some find it overly religious). In our communities, we've moved more or less to "seniors" although I find myself using "older adults" in written materials. It's pretty clunky though.
Anonymous said…
Crone and old coot get my vote.
guym said…
I do happen personally to like 'old fart,' but i don't advocate for it. I'm with Helen re "elder" and re the clunkiness of "older person." How old is "older"? (Older than I am, I guess.) I have asked many first year medical students (maybe including Alex Smith) what the first thing that comes to mind is when I say "old" in reference to a person - ain't nothing good, folks. "Elder" garners positives from "wise," to "trusted or respected leader." I have requested students to use the word elder when referring to someone they think is "old," whatever that age might be. "Old" is lost as a term, irrevocably pejorative in our culture. When I have asked about the word "senior," the first thing that comes to mind too often is "discount."
-guym

Popular posts from this blog

Practical Advice for the End of Life: A Podcast with BJ Miller

This week we talk with BJ Miller, hospice and palliative care physician, public speaker, and now author with Shoshana Berger of the book "A Beginner's Guide to the End."

As we note on the podcast, BJ is about as close as we get to a celebrity in Hospice and Palliative Care.  His TED Talk "What Really Matters at the End of Life" has been viewed more than 9 million times.  As we discuss on the Podcast, this has changed BJ's life, and he spends most of his working time engaged in public speaking, being the public "face" of the hospice and palliative care movement.

The book he and Berger wrote is filled to the brim with practical advice.  I mean, nuts and bolts practical advice.  Things like:
How to clean out not only your emotional house but your physical house (turns out there are services for that!)Posting about your illness on social media (should you post to Facebook)What is the difference between a funeral home and mortuaryCan I afford to die?  …

Caring, and the Family Caregivers We Don’t See

Over lunch at a restaurant in Manhattan, my father and I talked about long-term care insurance and the emergence of senior centers and nursing homes across the U.S. that offer a variety of ethnic cuisines and cultural events, catering not only to a growing population of adults over 65, but also, to an increasingly diverse population of adults who call the U.S. their home. This conversation was different from many similar ones before it – we weren’t talking about my research; we were talking about our own lives.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, following their parents’ advice on professional opportunities that seemed unimaginable in India at the time. Although they considered moving back soon after to care for their aging parents and to raise children, they ultimately decided to stay in the U.S. As I chronicled earlier, my paternal grandparents lived with us until I completed middle school, at which point they returned to India and lived with my mater…

Top 25 Studies in Hospice and Palliative Care (#HPMtop25)

by: Kara Bishoff (@kara_bischoff )

Back in 2015 we wrote a post asking for input on what articles should belong on a list of the top 25 articles in hospice and palliative care.   We decided to focus on hospice palliative care studies and trials - as opposed to review articles, consensus statements and opinion pieces.

Here’s what we came up with. It was hard to pick just 25! We highly prioritized clinical utility and tried to achieve diversity & balance. Many others are worthy of inclusion. Take a look and let us know if you have suggested changes for next year.

Module 1: Symptom Management
Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Oral Docusate in the Management of Constipation in Hospice Patients. Tarumi Y et al. JPSM, 2013.Once-Daily Opioids for Chronic Dyspnea: A Dose Increment and Pharmacovigilance Study. Currow DC et al. JPSM, 2011.Effect of palliative oxygen versus room air in relief of breathlessness in patients with refractory dyspnoea: a double-blind, randomise…