Thirty-seven years ago, before anyone would dare to refer to me as elderly, a movie was released called “Airplane.” Starring an unlikely comedic cast, including Leslie Nielsen, this spoof of Hollywood disaster films, much to everyone’s surprise, became a sensation. Of the many brilliant sight gags and clever lines, the following brief dialogue between Leslie Nielsen and Robert Hays, remains one of my favorites:
(LN) Can you fly this plane and land it?
(RH) Surely you can’t be serious.
(LN) I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley!
Fortunately, over the intervening years, I have encountered only a few women named Shirley, which has limited my number of embarrassing moments caused by uncontrollable giggling. And, finally, I can borrow the line, or at least, paraphrase it, to air a grievance.
I’d like to deliver a message to the media, and I am serious. Don’t call me elderly! In fact, don’t call me anything at all. If you must state my age in your story, it should not require a modifier.
Whenever a news story appears about a 73 year-old, for example, he or she is invariably referred to as “elderly.” In fact, they are often labeled as “elderly” before you are even told their age.
Here’s an example. The headline states: “Elderly Woman Robs Bank.” The story then goes on to report that Mamie Green, age 69, held up the Yucca City Bank at gun point, and eluded police by hiding in a tree. Now I ask you, should a 69 year-old woman who can wield a pistol, rob a bank, and climb a tree be called elderly?
Obviously this example is fictitious and a bit silly, and created to make a point. But there are very real examples. An NPR story reported on a 71-year old midwife and referred to her as “elderly. “ Elderly!? Really?!!? She’s still working, delivering babies. There’s nothing elderly about her, and these days, not even her age. And does labeling her as elderly enhance the story about midwifery? Totally irrelevant, if you ask me. If the woman was 55, would NPR have referred to her as “borderline middle-aged woman?”
If a woman of a certain age had the misfortunate of getting hit by a bus, is that any more tragic than a 40 year-old-being hit by a bus? Yet you can be sure that the former would be cited as “Elderly Woman Gets Hit By A Bus,” while the 40 year-old would merely be a “woman” who had the misfortune of crossing the street as the bus was pulling away from the curb. (In both cases, I’m happy to report the women survived.)
So what does “elderly” mean, exactly? The dictionary defines “elderly” as past middle age and approaching the rest of life. It then goes on to add parenthetically (sometimes considered offensive).
The meaning of the word appears harmless enough. It’s the connotation of the word that I find damaging. In our culture, the word “elderly” unfortunately carries the image of “frail,” “feeble,” and “dependent.” And what robust 75 or 80 year-old wants to be lumped into that stereotype?
I recognize that in some circles “elder” is not a four-letter word. If I was a member of a certain church, perhaps, or some Native American tribe, being called an elder would be an honor. I would be a respected advisor, a bestower of wisdom, perhaps even a goddess. (I like the sound of that!)
But unfortunately, that is not the world in which most of us live. Instead, elderly is an ageist label.
You might think that none of this is important, but words do shape attitudes and responses. So, what word should we use instead? Geezer? (Can a woman be a Geezer?) Long in the tooth? Over the hill? Mature? Senior Citizen? Or simply Old? I don’t have the answer, and as far as I can tell, neither does anyone else.
I like to think that age is more a matter of how you feel rather than a number. Therefore, I ask not to be assigned to a category based on the year in which I was born.
So, Leslie Nielsen, rest assured. Although you were the ripe old age of 54 when you made the career move from a romantic dramatic actor to comedy genius, I would never call you elderly.
(Nancy – this one’s for you!)