Who Are You Calling Elderly?

Back in 1994 I wrote a stern letter to the editor of The Australian complaining about a report in which the victim of an accidental police shooting was described as ‘elderly’ and ‘an old lady’.  She was 47, for heaven’s sake! 

From then on I started to notice and collect instances of similar careless and inappropriate uses of the word ‘elderly’.  I have yet to come across such a glaring an example as that first one, but there were plenty of others.

Some time in the 2000s, an ABC news report referred to ‘an elderly couple in their sixties’ being robbed in their home. 

A listener complained to SCOSE (the Standing Committee on Spoken English), which was then the ABC’s language watchdog, to say it was ridiculous to describe people in their sixties as elderly.  SCOSE agreed, and recommended that the word be avoided altogether. 

I don’t think it worked.  Journos everywhere continued to ignore this advice, and the outrageous linguistic ageism continues.  In 2014, a 64-year-old man accidentally drove his car into the wall of The Lodge, the Prime Minister’s official Canberra residence.  He was described as ‘elderly’. 

What was happening here?  Had young people re-defined ‘elderly’ to mean over sixty, or fifty, or even forty?  I remember once when I was in my early sixties I harrumphed about this to my young adult niece.  She was puzzled by my attitude, and wanted to know, if not ‘elderly’, what DO you call people who are no longer young?

You can call them older folks, or middle-aged, I said, or seniors.  My view was, and remains, that the word ‘elderly’ implies a quality of frailty, of debility, of – and pardon the bluntness of this term – dodderiness, brought on by advanced age.  It’s what age does to some people, not the age itself. 

I don’t think she was convinced.  In fact she just chuckled nervously, perhaps fearing that if she offended me by implying that I was elderly, I’d cut her out of my will! 

Mind you, she went on to have twin daughters in her mid-thirties, which makes her an ‘elderly primagravida’, according to the medical profession, which remains unapologetic about using the term.   

It’s not just the young who seem to have this new definition of ‘elderly’.  In 2021, the movie Nomadland won the Best Picture Oscar.  The writer and critic Peter Craven described the lead character Fern as ‘an elderly widow of 61’.  And he’s older than me! 

Some oldies aren’t taking this lying down.  You might have heard about what happened in July this year when 25-year-old Harrison Pawley walked up to a woman sitting in a shopping mall and gave her a bunch of flowers.  Hawley is a TikTok influencer with 3 million followers who makes money by posting videos of himself doing good deeds. The incident was recorded by his 21-year-old ‘manager’ and posted to TikTok, where to date it has attracted 64 million views! 

But Maree, the lady in question, who looks from the video to be in her sixties, didn’t appreciate being singled out for all this attention without her consent.  Once she’d recovered from her bemusement, she decided she’d been ‘dehumanised’ and ‘exploited’ and went on ABC Radio to say so, and to add that she didn’t even like the flowers! 

Hawley protested that he was only trying to spread some love.  ‘I’m not looking just for elderly ladies’, he said.  ‘I’ve given flowers to men and … younger women too.’  But he doesn’t give any of them a share of the money he earns. 

Back to the argument: is there a cut-off age at which you become elderly no matter what physical condition you’re in?

When I was in my fifties I said I’d put the qualifying age at 70 at least.  Now, for reasons you might be able to guess at, I’m revising that. 

Rupert Murdoch and Charlie Chaplin both sired children in their seventies. 

Nelson Mandela boogied like a demon at his 80th birthday party.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards will both turn 80 next year.  They’re both undeniably old, but are they elderly?

Until further notice, I’m decreeing that no one under 80 is to be described as ‘elderly’, unless they are in fact frail and doddery.  And I might well revise that number upwards when I approach that venerable age myself!

This was first published in The New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News on 7.10.22