According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2050 the population aged 65 and up is projected to reach 83.7 million.
Every time I read or hear the words “the elderly,” I feel a lump in my throat. I find myself wondering, why is it that we recognize without question any reference to “the gays” or “the blacks” as so obviously prejudicial, and disrespectful, yet not when it comes to older adults?
And yet we hear it every day. “When should the elderly stop driving?” asks a news headline. “The elderly often die alone” reads another.
At a time when our nation is being given an abundance of gifts in the form of people who are ages 65 and greater, we need to be respectful. Each person who is a member of that “group” is worth our collective respect.
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Careless use of the term “the elderly” can become a knife that cuts lines of love between people. The late, great artist and singer Nina Simone cautioned, “You’ve got to learn to leave the table, when love’s no longer being served.”
In English grammar, we use the definite article in front of a noun when we believe the listener knows exactly what we are referring to. Further, use of the word “the” suggests singular, as in The Pope. When you meet The Pope, then you’ve met The Pope. When you meet “the elderly” you’ve really only met one person who also happens to be older.
Use of the word “the” becomes a linguistic tactic to drive home the idea that I am different from that which I speak about, explains Sali Tagliamonte, a Canadian linguist currently at the University of Toronto. Using “the” creates a separation between the subject and the speaker, a distancing.
As a friend of mine likes to say, “I may be 100, but when I say, ‘the elderly,’ I am referring to those other people.”
“The” suggests homogeneity in a group that is diverse. When it’s referring to a group of people who have historically been oppressed and marginalized within a culture infatuated by youth, it can shape demeaning stereotypes.
Every time we say, “the elderly,” we reduce the defining features of a group of individuals to a patronizingly simplified version of what it means to be old. “The elderly” becomes the standard for maintaining an artificial and damaging binary divide between young and old. The world is beyond binaries.
Ashton Applewhite, expert on ageism and author of “This Chair Rocks,” says we distance ourselves from older people because we fear them. Or rather, we fear us becoming them. But more of us are becoming them.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2050 the population aged 65 and [greater] is projected to be 83.7 million. Population growth at this rate is twice the growth seen nearly 40 years ago.
Comedian and actor Robin Williams once named success as a core American value. Yet a nation that squanders the strengths and talents of “the elderly” will be unsuccessful.
If you don’t want to live in a nation where you are not valued, and your presence is invisible, join me in making people feel valuable and visible.
Make a simple start and change the language we use. Maybe we can reference people by their name.
Next time you see “the elderly,” ask for a name. Then, use it.
Information in this article, originally published Jan. 12, 2017, was corrected Jan. 16, 2017. Author Ashton Applewhite was misidentified in an earlier version of this Op-Ed.