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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

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