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Define ‘elderly’

Food for Thought

Elderly; past middle age, (and middle age is defined as between the ages of 40 and 60). My dictionary informs me that the term elderly is sometimes considered offensive. Just sometimes? I’ve news for them. In my book the term is definitely and always offensive– as is nearly every label that groups people into rigid categories and attributes the same characteristics to all of them.
I suppose it is nearly impossible to find a word for the stage of life I’m in; a word that seems accurate and inoffensive to everyone. As a matter of fact, I’ve had trouble knowing just what to call myself for some time. “Woman” seems as simple as anything else, except that it smacks of the concept of maturity– of being what we like to call a “grown-up.” Sometimes I feel grown up, but there are many situations where I feel totally naive, out of the loop, innocent as a child, and often all my insecurities and inexperience in some things loom large and I feel as if I’m still about 17. “Adult female” has the same drawbacks, plus it’s way too clinical. Makes me feel like a lab specimen.
Even long past girlhood, I considered myself a “girl” or a slightly less youthful-sounding “gal” probably because my mother, having four daughters, always referred to us as “the girls.” This term survived for all of her life, as did the habit of referring to her brothers as “the boys” no matter how old they were.
Ages seem to be rather neatly divided into 20-year segments– up until we reach 60 and are unceremoniously thrown into the “elderly” cauldron, ready or not. The term “child” generally includes everyone from birth through their teens. After that they are “adults” for another 20 when they suddenly enter the category of “middle age” that will last until they turn 60. After that, we are apparently doomed forever to be “elderly” which I think begins too soon and lasts too long.
What we need here is another 20 year category between “middle age” and “elderly” that includes the years from sixty to eighty. Maybe the word “older” would work, or “retired” which isn’t necessarily accurate, but it does give an indication of the age span involved. Then at age 80, we could more comfortably begin to think of ourselves as “elderly.” I’ve lived with that word for the past 20 years and felt it sounded far too old for the way I feel and the way I live, though I must confess that, when I look in the mirror or try to put my socks on, it does have some relevance. Maybe I’ll know how that feels next month after my 80th birthday, but right now it seems to be way too soon.
The term “retired” has a bunch of problems in that not everybody in the 60 to 80 year age range is retired. Some may be retired from life-long careers and spend their time supposedly enjoying the golden years, the fruits of their labors, playing golf, or sitting in the rocking chair, but most are still working, or have retired and taken a “retirement job” with less stress, fewer hours, and considerably less pay. Some, who have gotten into the rut of allowing their job to be their main purpose in life, can’t stand the idea of retirement and they are lucky if they are self-employed or otherwise exempt from a mandatory retirement age. And some, like many women of my generation have never been allowed to retire because they never held down a full-time job (other than that of “housewife” or “stay-at-home mom”). As I discovered when my husband retired, such women are not allowed to retire, but are required to take on additional duties such as replacing the secretary he had for 50 years, the restaurants that furnished his nice lunch each weekday, and the janitorial staff who cleaned up the clutter and messes he left in his wake. Not to mention a totally new role as personal nursemaid and therapist to deal with the aches and pains of his sedentary lifestyle, and to entertain him because he never bothered to develop a hobby or interest in things outside of his work.
So, if “elderly” were to begin at age 80 (and we want to keep this in neat, 20-year chunks) anyone over 100 should have a special designation that would honor the achievement of lasting for a century. While some might say there’s already a word for them– centenarian. It doesn’t seem punchy enough to indicate the importance of such an achievement. How about Centurion? My dictionary defines Centurion as an ancient Roman officer in charge of a unit of 100 foot soldiers. Sounds about right.