The Terminology of Aging

We need some clarity

By Laurie Orlov

Okay, it's another rant. Last week, at a UCLA panel I was on, an exasperated audience member, annoyed at what sounded like stereotypical patronizing about technology use, asked for a definition of “senior.” I stupidly responded that it was a census definition of age 65+. The census actually categorizes percentages multiple ways: 60+, 62+, 65+, and 75+. Wish everyone did that. Sixty-five is the year of Medicare eligibility. It was once the year for pensions and mandatory retirement, and for many, it is the year of full Social Security eligibility. It has been used as a political demographic synonymous with “seniors,” as in the example of the $250 stimulus check to seniors.

So what's with “elderly”?
Terminology appears to be shifting in the sand. Next incident: I read an October 2009 report titled Internet Use and Depression in the Elderly that was about a survey population age 55 and older. Then, in this week's Wall Street Journal article titled Swine-Flu Deaths Higher in the Elderly, the sample set was age 50 and older.

Definitions, definitions.
So here's the Webster definition of elderly, which is clearly out of synch with current WSJ usage: "somewhat old; near old age; of or pertaining to persons in later life." Here’s the legal definition of seniors or senior citizens: "Elderly persons, usually more than sixty or sixty-five years of age." And Webster on aged: "having lived or existed long; of advanced age; old." Let's remember that at one time, sixty was more than elderly—it was the end of life. But US life expectancy in 2009 was 78.1 years (a bit higher for women). It has been steadily rising; in fact, the fastest-growing segment of the 65+ population is in the 85 and up range.

Clearly it's categorization chaos out there. So I am compelled to ask, are people age 50+ elderly? Are 55+ elderly? Baby boomers are 45 to 63. Are they elderly? Meanwhile, AARP dropped the “retired persons” part of its name precisely to avoid overemphasis of a perception of elderly as it pertains to their membership range, which today is 50+. Check out the video from the just-ended AARP convention. I'm thinking that this able-to-dance-in-Las-Vegas crowd would disagree that they are in the WSJ elderly segment.

Fix the published terminology. Soon baby boomers will begin to overlap with the Medicare-eligible and legally retired from the workforce. They may not, however, actually retire! So let's try to get our surveys to be explicit and targeted: Those age 50+ are older (compared to younger); they are not elderly. Those age 65+ are seniors by the Medicare-eligible definition (when that goes away, I'll start all over on this). Surveys that report on a behavior or status of a population should use “older” when they mean 50+ and seniors when they mean 65+. And please subsegment all studies so we know what they mean: Maybe people in their 50s don't tend to die when hospitalized with swine flu, and maybe, just maybe, they have access to the Internet, and at least where that's concerned, they aren't depressed. Maybe the world of the 85+ is distinctly different from the world for 65-year-olds. (Check out the world of 100-year-olds.)

Because the Wall Street Journal article doesn't say, I'd call its headline inaccurate.

By Laurie Orlov
Aging in Place Technology Watch Blog

[Originally posted November 5, 2009, at Laurie's Aging in Place Technology Watch Web site.]

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