When Does Someone Become ‘Old’?

It’s surprisingly hard to find a good term for people in late life.

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Once people are past middle age, they’re old. That’s how life progresses: You’re young, you’re middle-aged, then you’re old.

Of course, calling someone old is generally not considered polite, because the word, accurate though it might be, is frequently considered pejorative. It’s a label that people tend to shy away from: In 2016, the Marist Poll asked American adults if they thought a 65-year-old qualified as old. Sixty percent of the youngest respondents—those between 18 and 29—said yes, but that percentage declined the older respondents were; only 16 percent of adults 60 or older made the same judgment. It seems that the closer people get to old age themselves, the later they think it starts.

Overall, two-thirds of the Marist Poll respondents considered 65 to be “middle-aged” or even “young.” These classifications are a bit perplexing, given that, well, old age has to start sometime. “I wouldn’t say [65] is old,” says Susan Jacoby, the author of Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, “but I know it’s not middle age—how many 130-year-olds do you see wandering around?”

The word old, with its connotations of deterioration and obsolescence, doesn’t capture the many different arcs a human life can trace after middle age. This linguistic strain has only gotten more acute as average life spans have grown longer and, especially for wealthier people, healthier. “Older adults now have the most diverse life experiences of any age group,” Ina Jaffe, a reporter at NPR who covers aging, told me in an email. “Some are working, some are retired, some are hitting the gym every day, others suffer with chronic disabilities. Some are traveling around the world, some are raising their grandchildren, and they represent as many as three different generations. There’s no one term that can conjure up that variety.”

So if 65-year-olds—or 75-year-olds, or 85-year-olds—aren’t “old,” what are they? As Jaffe’s phrasing suggests, American English speakers are converging on an answer that is very similar to old but has another syllable tacked on as a crucial softener: older. The word is gaining popularity not because it is perfect—it presents problems of its own—but because it seems to be the least imperfect of the many descriptors English speakers have at their disposal.

In general, those terms tend to be fraught or outmoded. Take senior, for instance. “Senior is one of the most common euphemisms for old people, and happens to be the one I hate the most,” Jacoby told me. To her, senior implies that people who receive the label are different, and somehow lesser, than those who don’t. “Think about voters from 18 to 25 … Imagine if a newspaper called them juniors instead of young voters,” she said. (Of course, the word senior can also be used to signify experience and endow prestige—as in senior vice president of marketing—but not all older people interpret it that way in the context of later life.) Additional knocks against the term include its potential ambiguity (inconveniently, it’s also the term for fourth-year high schoolers) and frequent imprecision (it’s often paired with the word citizen, even though not every older resident of the U.S. is an American citizen).

Meanwhile, elderly, a term that was more common a generation ago, is hardly neutral—it’s often associated with frailty and limitation, and older people generally don’t identify with it. “If you ask a room of people at a senior center who there is a member of ‘the elderly,’ you might get only reluctant hands or none,” Clara Berridge, a gerontologist at the University of Washington School of Social Work, posited in an email. “The fact that people don’t often voluntarily relate to this term is a strong reason to not apply it to them.”

Other, less common words don’t seem fit for everyday use either. Aging is accurate but vague—everyone is aging all the time. Retiree doesn’t apply to an older person who never worked or hasn’t stopped working, and, further, can suggest that someone’s employment status is her defining feature. Geriatric is precise, but sounds far too clinical. Elder can be appropriative—the word is common in some Native American and African American communities—and besides, could imply wisdom in people who lack it.

Euphemisms, too, are clearly out: References to one’s “golden years” and to old people as “sages” or “super adults” strain to gloss over the realities of old age. “Phrases such as ‘70 is the new 50’ reflect a ‘pos­itive aging’ discourse, which suggests that the preferred way of being old is to not be old at all, but rather to maintain some image of middle-age functionality and appearance,” Berridge wrote in a 2017 academic article she co-authored.

Of course, old hasn’t gone entirely out of circulation. In fact, it was popular with some of the experts I spoke with, who were unfazed by it. “I actually think those of us who are in our 60s and beyond ought to reclaim old,” Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University, told me. “[For] someone like me, who’s lived at least two-thirds of his natural life span, I have no objection at all to being called an old person, but I understand that has connotations for people.”

Those “connotations” get at one reason the aforementioned panoply of terms remains inadequate, and why searching for a better word than old isn’t an unnecessary concession to older people’s sensitivities: Language can’t eradicate society-wide biases against old age. “I’d argue that the reason there isn’t consensus about a preferred term has everything to do with ageism rather than that the terms themselves are problematic,” Elana Buch, an anthropologist at the University of Iowa, said in an email. “As long as being ‘old’ is something to avoid at all costs (literally, ‘anti-aging’ is a multibillion-dollar industry), people will want to avoid being identified as such.”

Aware of these biases, Buch has come to favor the terms older adults and older people in both academic writing and everyday conversation, explaining that those phrases are “simple, descriptive, and foreground the personhood/adulthood of the people being described.” Pillemer made a similar point: Unlike other categories and labels, older is a descriptor that “people can move into without having it seem like it’s a whole different category of human being.”

“I think you’re going to see a movement almost entirely to ‘older adults’ or ‘older people,’ ” Pillemer said. “I don’t know anybody, either in advocacy, professional gerontology, or personally, who finds those terms offensive.”

That movement has already begun. Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and an author, told me that the phrase older adults has become much more common in the past 15 years, a period of time during which senior and senior citizen have seen sharp declines in usage. That’s according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a database of more than 600 million words collected from newspapers, novels, speeches, and other sources that Stamper said offers a “quick view of modern American English.” The database also indicates that elderly, mature, and aging have been falling in popularity over the past 30 years.

Older may be catching on because it seems to irritate the smallest number of people. Ina Jaffe, the NPR journalist, found early on in her reporting on old age that people had strong reactions to the existing linguistic palette. Several years ago, curious to get a better sense of which terms people liked and which they didn’t, she helped arrange a poll on the NPR website soliciting opinions. Older adult was “the winner … though you can’t say there was any real enthusiasm for it among our poll takers. Just 43 percent of them said they liked it,” she explained on air. Elder and senior had roughly 30 percent approval ratings.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t any good term for older adults besides, well, older adults,” Jaffe told me recently. Other important shapers of language have come to that conclusion as well. Older has become the preferred nomenclature in many academic journals and dictionary definitions. The New York Times’ stylebook says of the word elderly, “Use this vague term with care,” and advises, “For general references, consider older adults, or, sparingly, seniors.” Juliana Horowitz, a researcher at the Pew Research Center, which often segments its survey respondents along demographic lines, said the organization tends to go with older adults.

(A popular alternative, of course, is to forgo broad labels and specify the ages in question. Pew often mentions the age cutoffs for its generational cohorts, and the New York Times stylebook prefers people in their 70s or people over 80 to elderly. Referring to a broader group, “A term we often use is people age 50 and up and/or people 50-plus,” said Jo Ann Jenkins, the CEO of AARP. “It’s factual and commonsense.”)

Older is not without its downsides, though. First, it’s not common to say “younger people,” but, rather, just “young people”—an unpleasant asymmetry, and an implicit acknowledgment that young doesn’t carry disagreeable associations like old does. Second, it is a relative term without a clear comparison: Older … than whom, exactly? And third, as Berridge, the gerontologist, pointed out, “‘older adult’ implies a younger adult age as the unspoken norm.” Still, she told me, “I use ‘older adult’ because it seems like the least-bad option at this point in time.”

Replacements for all these existing terms—older as well as the words it’s gradually displacing—have been proposed over the years. For at least a couple of decades, gerontological researchers have been making a distinction between the young old (typically those in their 60s and 70s) and the old old (definitions vary, but 85 and up is common). Another academic term is third age, which refers to the period after retirement but before the fourth age of infirmity and decline (which some would argue unjustly legitimizes distinctions based on physical abilities). Perennials, an inventive, plant-inspired label intended to convey lasting value and consistent renewal, is another contender.

But none of these has caught on outside the realms of academic research and op-eds. “If I had to pick a track down which the language will gallop,” said Stamper, the lexicographer, “then my guess is older is probably the word that we’ll default to, because we haven’t taken any of these other coinages and run with them yet.”

In the absence of a neologism that sticks, older is a more or less satisfactory solution to this linguistic problem. But that adjective, like any other term associated with old age, is silent on how old people must be for it to be applied to them. Attempts to work that out get at the true essence of life’s later stages.

Policy makers have their own narrow answer. “In the research world and in the policy world, [65] is the number people use to demarcate entry into old age,” says Laura Carstensen, the director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity. “It’s been reified: You’re eligible for Social Security, for Medicare …and the research literature is focused on people 65 and older, so even though 65 doesn’t mean anything in any real way, it has come to represent real things.”

But this number, 65, is more or less arbitrary—there’s certainly no biological basis for it. “For policy-planning purposes, ‘over 75’ is a much more meaningful demographic than ‘over 65,’ ” says Karl Pillemer. Statistically, that’s the age when people become significantly more likely to develop a chronic disease, he notes. “People between the ages of 65 and 75 are often more similar to people in middle age.”

Even then, focusing on a particular number seems misguided. “Chronological age is a very poor measure of almost anything by the time you get to 65,” Carstensen says. “Take two 65-year-old people … One can [have dementia], and the other could be, you know, a Supreme Court justice. So it doesn’t tell you much.”

Picking other delineators—perhaps employment status or dependence on caregivers—might get around the issue Carstensen articulated but could introduce other problems; those two examples in particular would risk putting undue emphasis on people’s ability to work or live independently.

Ideally, a definition of old age would capture a sense of things ending, or at least getting closer to ending. All those people who call 65 “middle-aged” aren’t delusional—they probably just don’t want to be denied their right to have ambitions and plans for the stretch of their life that’s still ahead of them, even if that stretch is a lot shorter than the one behind them.

Susan Jacoby, the author of Never Say Die, suggested a definition of old age that addresses this elegantly. She told me that, in her 20s, she made lifelong friends, some of them 10 or 15 years older than she was, while working at The Washington Post. Now that she’s 74, she comes across obituaries for those old friends. “What I think of as old is an age when you start seeing people you know in the obituary column,” she told me. “I think of middle age as a time when you’re not afraid to look at the obituaries, because you assume that the people who have died you’re not going to know.” Even if her definition doesn’t help us figure out how to refer to others, it is poignant, personalized, and flexible—and will likely age well.