It matters what we call older people

Judith Davey


I once asked my students for examples of epithets used for older people. I got the usual: oldies, grey-hairs, wrinklies, geriatrics. And a new one, apparently from the USA – “geezers”. None were complimentary, but none as bad as one I heard from a government official once – “pre-dead”.

There has been ambivalence about ageing for millennia. On the positive side, throughout time leaders have been greeted with “Long Live  X!” The Old Testament is full of statements in which long life is seen as a reward from God.

The fear of the Lord prolongs days: but the years of the wicked shall be shortened (Proverbs 10:27).

A grey head is a crown of glory; It is found in the way of righteousness (Proverbs 16:31).

But Shakespeare, in the “Seven Ages of Man” speech[1], is not complimentary about old age. The sixth age is “the lean and slippered pantaloons…. his big manly voice turning again toward childish treble”. And the last scene of all “Is second childishness and mere oblivion. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

I like the Grimms’ story quoted by Simone de Beauvoir in The Coming of Age (1970, p. 135).

God set 30 years as the lifetime for man and animals. The ass, dog and monkey wanted this reduced to, respectively, 18, 12 and 10 years. Man asked for longer – so he was given 30 years as a Man; 18 as an ass, carrying burdens and feeding others; 12 as a dog, growling; and 10 as a monkey, without wits, making children laugh (adding up to 70).[2]

Nowadays, there is still ambivalence. “Old” can be a term of endearment – “good old so and so” we often say.  But “dirty old man” is not complimentary and “elderly” is demeaning, assuming frailty and inactivity.

Paul Spoonley, interviewed on RNZs “Nine to Noon” programme on 19th June agreed. He talked about much longer lives and the increasing prospect of living to 100 years and beyond. On this basis the sixties decade is “middle aged” – 75 is the new 65. Are we applying “elderly” to an age group spanning 35 years or more, and two generations?  The Kapiti Observer of June 14th, under the heading: “Should we ban the E word?” quotes Spoonley and gives examples of people in their sixties being described as “elderly”.

So “elderly” is roundly condemned– perhaps only to be used, if at all, for the very frail and dependent. So I was surprised to hear that a model law for ” The Protection Of The Elderly “ drafted by the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies International Human Rights Clinic, dated  2012, was up for discussion at an event is to be held in Wellington in August. This is called, “Positive Ageing Strategy and a Constitution for older New Zealanders; Informing the discussion,” clearly linked to the consultations, led by the Office for Seniors, to update the 2001 Positive Ageing Strategy.

I read this draft law and, while it can be applauded for its aim to promote respect and appreciation for the participation of older adults in the community; to protect their rights and interests and provide them with the support necessary to sustain the quality of life and dignity; older people are consistently referred to as “the elderly” and frequently their autonomy and ability to choose does not appear paramount. “The family” is given the main responsibility for care and support, with the state coming in only when this is not possible. Further examples –

18.3. The State shall have the duty to take measures to carry out cultural, sports and recreational activities of a public nature that are suited to the elderly in order to enrich their cultural life.  

Who decides what is “suited”? Where does it say that older people should make their own choices?

18.8.1. Implementing a policy to encourage employers and the public, in general, to understand the importance of employing the elderly, to stabilize employment, and to find ways of meeting problems arising from the impact of age on employment.

Yes, but ideally on terms set by the older people themselves, giving them a strong say in working conditions. We shall see how this discussion progresses.

One of the first blogs I wrote for Age Concern asked –What’s special about human rights for older people? The United Nations has conventions protecting the rights of population groups – women, children, refugees, prisoners, people with disabilities. But nothing specifically covers the rights of older people. Does this matter? Doesn’t the Universal Declaration of Human Rights say that “all human being are born free and equal in dignity and rights”?

I believe that any document, UN-sponsored or otherwise, must be based on the preferences of older people in relation to their lifestyle, residence, assets and relationships. Not that they are treated as passive and incompetent and certainly not clumped together as “the elderly”. As I concluded before, respect for older people’s rights benefits everyone. Because, if violation of these rights leads to exclusion, poverty and discrimination, then society is robbing itself of the potential that older people represent and of their contributions based on their experience and wisdom.





[1] “As you like it”.

[2] All these examples refer to men or “man”. Sometimes virtuous women were also rewarded with long life.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
This entry was posted in Attitudes and values (culture, sexuality and spirituality). Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s