Should we stop using the word “elder” or “elderly”?

According to the Telegraph in the UK, the answer is “yes.” And it seems that more and more, clinicians in the aging business are dropping the use of the word “elder” and “elderly” and instead are using the term “older adult” (as do I).

Interestingly, there seems to be a lot of resistance in the legal field for dropping this term – in fact, an entire legal field uses the dread term, e.g., “elder law attorneys.”

What do you think? Is the term “elder” OK? Or is it tantamount to calling someone a “codger” and the like? I’m curious what you think.

One thought on “Should we stop using the word “elder” or “elderly”?

  1. Hi Beth and Geoffrey-
    Wonderful blog you have here; thought-provoking, wide-ranging, and important. I’m glad to have discovered it.
    I’ve come to use the word “elder” much more in the past decade, partly in reaction to my increasing awareness about how confused we seem to be in mainstream American culture about what elders are actually for. Partly from work in mentoring teens and partly from work with adults on identity issues, I’ve seen how much we (I include elders in “we”) don’t know how to properly appreciate and take in what elders provide to younger adults and children. In mentoring work, I’ve found that elders often don’t know HOW to be elders: they haven’t been taught by their own elders how to step clearly into the role of the “blessing wise man or woman” or the “counselor and historian of the tribe”; and there is great fear that the younger folks won’t listen or honor that role, and the elder man or woman will feel like a fool.

    Feeling as if we’re really seen (or ‘seen through’) by wiser eyes who’ve seen so much in the world, being blessed for our efforts at being good people, and being cautioned about going astray: these are needs not only in children but in adults. These needs are part of appropriate humility. The person who has no need to be blessed is a dangerous person. And who could be better suited to giving the blessing than a psychologically mature, trustworthy, white-haired elder? But just as we sometimes expect children to ‘raise themselves’, adults can also expect ourselves to ‘go it alone’ without expecting or valuing the guidance of elders and crones (another word that has been embraced by some to re-value the elderhood of women). One of my own (elder) mentors would likely say that this is just a special case of a general problem: people not knowing what other people are for (i.e., connection, valuing, support, togetherness, sharing in joy and sorrow, easing each other’s loneliness and pain). The elders are those who carry the greatest responsibility of showing the way out of the narrow confines of a survival or ‘get it done’ mentality and into a community container of belonging and support that they have the presence to provide.

    I’m not sure how I feel about “elderly,” but when I use “elderhood” and “elders” and “elder,” to me these words carry real weight and honor the great responsibilities of our grandmothers and grandfathers.


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