Words Matter: Elderly vs. Elder

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Many people use the term “elderly” to refer to an older person. “Elderly” is defined as “rather old” or “old-fashioned.” Synonyms for elderly include “aged,” “ancient,” “geriatric,” “senescent” and “old.” The use of the term “elderly” often implies decline and failing. The term “elderly can come across as ageist and offensive by emphasizing negative or stereotypical aspects of age.

On the other hand, the term “Elder” has a very different connotation. “Elder” definitions include: “of higher rank; senior” and “an influential member of a tribe or community, often a chief or ruler, a superior” and “one having authority by virtue of age and experience.

Changing the culture of aging starts by having a more person-centered focus. One of the best ways to change our focus is by thinking deeply about the language we use. WORDS MATTER.

The term “Elder” is often used within the Culture Change movement. We see an Elder as a person who has wisdom and who has something to teach us. Regardless of chronological age, an Elder can contribute to the lives of others.

The Eden Alternative® defines an Elder as “someone who by virtue of life experience is here to teach us how to live.” The belief is that anyone of any age can be an Elder.

Barry Barkin, Founder of the Live Oak Project and one of the original “Pioneers” of the national culture change movement, defines an “Elder” in the following way: “An Elder is a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential and whose life continues to have within it promise for, and connection to the future. An Elder is still in pursuit of happiness, joy and pleasure, and his or her birthright to these remains intact. Moreover, an Elder is a person who deserves respect and honor and whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from life experience and formulate this into a legacy for future generations.”

How do you and your organization refer to the people that you serve?

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