In her new book, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” Anna Quindlen does her own riff on the word “elderly.” (I was happy to see I’m in good company). As happened to me, it's a news story that ticked her off. In her case, it’s when the writer describes a couple fending off a burglar as "elderly." The woman was 68. "How is that elderly/" Quindlen says she "ranted." "That's not elderly!"
So Quindlen seeks out journalism sites and writing stylebooks “to nail down the cutoff point for "elderly."
She finds that it’s a “moving target.” According to a Pew research report she discovers, “most people said old age begins at 68. But most people over the age of 65 thought it was 75.” She researches her own clips.
"I discovered to my horror that I had used the adjective with casual regularity.” Though as she edged toward her current age, 60, her usage dwindled.
“As I aged, ‘elderly’ seemed more and more pejorative … In other words, old is wherever you haven’t gotten to yet.”
“It’s all relative,"she writes on page 106, " the way it was when I got pregnant for the first time at 31 and everyone in our two families thought I’d left it rather late and everyone in our urban friendship circle thought I was rushing into it…. When people lived to be 65, 60 was old. When they live to be 80, 60 is something else. We’re just not sure what yet. A friend told me she thought it was summed up in the message inside a birthday card she got from her mother, ‘ After the middle ages comes the renaissance.’”
"So we face an entirely new stage of human existence without nomenclature, which is an interesting challenge, because what we call things matters. That’s why I recoiled from ‘elderly.’ The words we use, and how we perceive those words, reflect how we value, or devalue people, places and things. After all, one of the signal semantic goals of the early women’s movement was to make certain grown women were no longer referred to as ‘girls.’”
Some of you offered your own thoughts about the “E” word, after my blogs on it..(Elderly, take1 ; take2
“’Elderly’ should be banned." “
That’s what Libby Rosof suggests. “It’s a political statement. I have a 90-year-old friend who’s damned spry and hardly elderly. Just say how old, not characterize. That’s my solution.”
“How about ‘sixty-something’ or ‘seventy-something,’ or is that too cute?” writes a college classmate.
And here is a suggested style book entry for my favorite newspaper, from one of its former reporters.
Murray Dubin, writes:
“Using ‘elderly’ does imply frailty and should not be used unless the physical stature of the person is important to the story. Adjectives describing age and appearance are charged with meaning. Be cautious using them. As a guideline. leave them out and use exact age – where appropriate – or no age reference at all.”