How should we refer to people who are aged 65 years or over? This is a question others (Firor, 2016: Graham, 2012; Jaffe, 2016) are pondering and perhaps one that needs further attention in Singapore.
There are a number of reasons why we may need to reflect on how we refer to people aged 65 plus and some key reasons relate to rapid population ageing, increasing healthy life expectancy and the power of language.
People are living longer and healthier lives than previous generations. Singapore’s population is ageing at such a pace that it will soon rival Japan’s status as having one of the most aged populations in the world. Projections provided by the UN indicate a 97% increase in Singapore’s population aged 60 years or over between 2015 and 2030 (UNDESA, 2015). By 2050, 42.5% of Japan’s population and 40.4% of Singapore’s population are expected to be aged 60 years or over (UNDESA, 2015). Healthy life expectancies, or those years a person can expect to live in relative good health, have increased dramatically over the recent decades. Females and males born in Singapore in 2015 can expect to live to 86.1 and 80 years respectively, up from 77 and 73 years in 1990 (WHO, 2017; 2008). They have healthy life expectancies of 78 and 75 years (UNDESA, 2015), respectively, up from 69.5 and 67.9 years in 2001 (WHO, 2002). This sociodemographic transformation points to the present cohort of older persons and indeed future generations of older people as being quite different to previous generations. Also, longer and healthier life spans will inevitably be associated with significant between-person differences in developmental trajectories. Such changes will necessitate a shift in how we think and talk about people in the later years of their life span.
Another reason to reassess how we refer to people aged 65 years and older relates to the power of language to shape how we feel about ourselves and others. Research indicates that negative language which perpetuates ageist stereotypes of old age as a time of dependency and fragility can impact negatively on the wellbeing of older people (WHO, 2016).
There are number of terms currently in use to describe people who are 65 plus of which ‘older people’ and ‘elderly’ are the most common.
As a psychologist and gerontologist, I have been trained to refer to adults in the early and later parts of the life span as younger and older adults, respectively. This learning is grounded in the life-span perspective of human development and a relative strength of this terminology is that it does not label all people in an age cohort on the basis of average, age-related changes in functioning. Rather, it recognises the heterogeneity of the adult population, which is particularly pronounced among older cohorts as a result of an accumulation of life experiences and events. Also, use of the term older people rather than elderly has been recommended by the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association: “Elderly is not acceptable as a noun and is considered pejorative by some as an adjective. Older person is preferred.” (APA, 2001, Section 2.17 Age, p 69).
The term ‘elderly’ is commonly used by policymakers, professionals, the general public, the media, and also by academics. Whilst the term ‘elders’ is thought to convey respect to people who are older in years or wiser, elderly is considered by some to be too narrowly defined to aptly describe all people aged over 65. In the World Report on Health and Ageing produced by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2015), elderly is used typically only when referring to groups of people who are patients of aged care facilities or who are frail, infirm and dependent on others to perform activities of daily living. Recognising the meaning that many attach to ‘elderly’ and that negative stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of age can be damaging for older people’s health and wellbeing, some communities have actively sought to reduce its use. For example, as part of the “Say No to Ageism” campaign in Ireland, people and organisations sought to improve information and signs to ensure they used more age-friendly messages, including replacing the word ‘elderly’ with ‘older people’ (WHO, 2015).
The use of, and response to, these descriptive terms for people aged 65 plus may vary between people, and can depend on chronological age, generation, cohort, culture, self-perception, and personal preference. A newspaper in the US recently reported on a case where two women were ‘indignant’ about being referred to in another newspaper as elderly (Andreatta, 2017). The article had reported that ‘two elderly women’ were seriously injured by a motor vehicle whilst they were walking for exercise. The women’s objection was based on their assessment they are not elderly but fit and vigorously active women. However, this story and other like evidence is sourced from Western nations and may not generalise to Asian cultures. Indeed, it may be culturally appropriate to use of the word without the same connotations as can be found in Western society.
Clearly, the age composition of the world’s population is shifting and older people today and in the future may be more diverse than in the past such that the current terms we use to describe older people may be too narrow in scope. Also, the health and wellbeing of older people may be influenced by ageist language (which may differ across cultures) suggesting that we need to be more cognisant of the ways in which we refer to people aged 65 plus in our everyday language. When you are 65 years or older, how would you like others to refer to you and your peers?
– Dr. Anna Lane, Research Fellow, Lee Li Ming Programme for Ageing Urbanism
American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 5th ed. Washington, DC: APA; 2001.
Andreatta, D. (2017). Don’t call these women ‘elderly’. Democrat & Chronicle, http://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/local/columnists/andreatta/2017/07/07/andreatta-dont-call-these-women-elderly/442251001/