‘Elderly’ is all a matter of viewpoint

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Saturday, July 15, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

Say I’m talking with a friend. I’m describing my chat with Barbara Borylla.

"She’s a nice older lady from Edmonds," I might say.

I wouldn’t say she’s elderly. I wouldn’t say she’s old. "Older" is the polite conversational word for someone, say, Borylla’s age, 71.

When she called recently, Borylla was unhappy with the use of "elderly" in a Herald article about a traffic accident that killed a Lynnwood couple. The victims’ ages were 78 and 72.

"I’m in my early 70s, and I certainly don’t feel elderly," Borylla said. The word "implies frail health," she said, adding, "if they were 89 and 92, that would seem elderly."

Her question: What’s The Herald policy covering usage of the "e" word?

Policy? Hmm. I told Borylla I’d have to check on that.

Instead of going straight to the top, I whipped around in my chair. "Hey, Warren," I said to the reporter and transportation columnist across the aisle. "Didn’t someone get mad at you for calling them elderly?"

Yes, admitted Warren Cornwall, who is all of 30. While still 29, he wrote about an "elderly" person of 63. A stirred-up reader pointed out the error of his ways.

It truly was an error, according to The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, a kind of journalists’ bible containing the closest thing I found to a policy.

"Use carefully," the stylebook said about elderly. "Avoid the terms elderly or senior citizen unless a person’s age has something to do with the story. Never use for someone under age 65."

My Webster’s New World Dictionary isn’t so touchy, defining elderly as: "somewhat old; past middle age; approaching old age; in old age; aged."

If this was only about rules, Borylla and I would have little to say. It’s about feelings. We don’t like how the word makes us feel.

Dr. Soo Borson, head of the University of Washington Geriatric and Family Services Clinic in Seattle, understood why Borylla called.

"She’s active and probably feels about 20. Unless they’re depressed, most people do. That’s why a 71-year-old woman wouldn’t want to be called elderly," said Borson, a psychiatrist and UW professor. She has informally asked patients (dare I say "elderly" patients?) how old they feel.

"It’s an age when they thought they assumed their full adult personality, their early 20s, or for some, their 40s," Borson said. "How old people are has not a whole heck of a lot to do with very much anymore."

Geriatrics is the branch of medicine dealing with diseases and problems of old age, but, Borson said: "There is no such age as ‘geriatric.’ What we do to get around the issue is to talk about older adults. Older than what? Well, it doesn’t matter."

There’s such stigma associated with age that denial is common, the doctor said. "I’ll say to patients who are 90, ‘You’re old,’ and they say, ‘I am?’"

Not only are we uncomfortable with "elderly," we’re not too hot about "retired," or even "mature," for that matter.

The AARP, the nation’s largest organization for people 50 and older, is no longer officially the American Association of Retired Persons. Since last year, the group has simply been named AARP. The letters don’t stand for anything, not anymore.

"Thirty-three percent of our members are not retired," said Deborah Moore, spokeswoman for AARP’s Washington office in Seattle, explaining the change. "AARP is our brand now; we consider it a marketable brand."

She likened it to IBM, saying she doubts many people remember that it means International Business Machines.

The AARP has also tinkered with its publication, Modern Maturity, to boost its baby-boomer appeal. That’s some trick, coming up with stories to entice the first rock ‘n’ roll generation while satisfying their 80-year-old parents, the ones who spent years telling young boomers to "turn that music down."

"Modern Maturity, I would look for a name change within the year," Moore said.

I asked Borylla – an AARP member, by the way – if she’ll ever be elderly.

"Oh, I hope not," she said. "I suppose if I’m in a nursing home, and can’t eat, then I’ll be elderly. But I’ll be so out of it, I won’t know I’m elderly."

Two years ago, expecting my third child, I got a glimpse of my medical records when my Everett doctor sent me to Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. Under the chart’s "problems and risk factors" heading, she had penned in black ink, "refer to Swedish for advanced maternal age."

I was 44, a kid really, but already suffering from "advanced maternal age." They’re words, not life. I survived, see? This elderly mom is fine and trusting in the expertise of Dr. Borson.

"So 65 isn’t old?" I asked the head of the geriatric clinic.

"Not anymore," she said. "And if we have knee problems, we can get new knees."

Contact Julie Muhlstein via e-mail at

muhlsteinjulie@heraldnet.com, write to her at The Herald, P.O. Box 930, Everett, WA 98206, or call 425-339-3460.

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