Waddya Think? Is The Word “Elderly” Offensive and Ageist?

Words are important; designations and characterizations are important. What people are called is important – for many reasons.

Readers know that I collect, among other things, words and comments directed to or describing older workers that are coded ageist comments.

Just the other day I summarized a few years’ worth of such coded language:

“Perhaps some employers think that they can escape being caught discriminating against older people if they code their language. Or maybe they are just used to making ageist comments because they have, as the EEOC has said, ‘outdated prejudices and biases.’ Either way, these comments may be seen as code words, or perhaps in political parlance — ‘dog-whistle’ expressions, which are designed to ‘convey a predetermined meaning to a receptive audience, while remaining inconspicuous to the uninitiated.’

“For example, you do not call an employee ‘old’ or ‘ancient’ (I once had a case where the boss referred to another employee of the same age as the one he fired as “ancient”) since that is direct evidence of age discrimination. You stay away from calling an employee ‘old school,’ or ‘set in his ways,’ or ‘not a proper fit for the “new environment,’ or ‘lacking in energy.’ And, of yes, ‘Hang up your Superman Cape,’ and ‘get it together you f…. old people’ should also be avoided (although the latter remark can hardly be considered particularly well “coded”).”

A new article in BioEdge has me thinking, or re-thinking: is the word “elderly” ageist?  Is it?

Yes, says a University of Chicago neurologist, who notes that the word “elderly” as used by doctors is “nearly meaningless in an era when over-65s have a wide range of health conditions,” and is as offensive as “imbecile” or “idiot.”

His take is to a large extent medical: that calling and treating everyone over 65 the same is discriminatory and contrary to principles of medicine.  No argument there.   Medicine should be individualized.  So “treating the elderly” is not a “one-size fits-all” thing.

Medicine is the science and art of individualised communication, evaluation, recommendation, and treatment. Each patient has the right to be treated as an individual, according to medical standards based on their specific age, general condition, and comorbidities. To label everyone above a certain age as elderly and to treat them identically defies this principle, which should be at the heart of medicine.

The term elderly is also meaningless in a medical sense: it gives you no understanding as to who you are dealing with.

[It] offers no useful information about any of this. In medicine it can evoke false ideas about the person being described as elderly in the listener’s mind, introduce unfair social biases and generalisations, and generate ill conceived policies.

Finally, he says that this medical generalization is a human rights issue.

“Aging is not a disease, it is a progressive biological change and there may be vast differences in the health of people who are aged 65 and over. One older patient may not be able to tolerate a medical treatment because of accumulated comorbidities, but another of the same age without comorbidities may easily do so. … My suggestion that we avoid the term elderly in medicine goes beyond the word itself to encompass all that it connotes: stereotypes, unwarranted impressions, and bias. This is essentially a human rights issue.”

Even if you agree with all of the above when it comes to a one-size-fits-all in the typical medical approach to people over 65, is the word “elderly” — in and of itself – ageist?

So, waddya think?

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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]