Elderly, seniors, aged — what’s the right terminology to use when writing about, well, older people? It’s worth considering this in an era of greater sensitivity to the terminology we use in speaking and writing.
The World Health Organization (WHO) weighed in on this issue long ago when it published the 1995 report “The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Older Persons.” The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the source of the report, chose to use the term “older persons.” More recently, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) gives these preferred options: “older persons,” “older people,” and “older individuals.” And it’s worth adding that the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, widely used by journalists, also recommends “older adults” or “older persons.”
Despite these preferences, a 2022 study by Murphy and colleagues found that 21% of articles published between January 2018 and December 2020 in European Geriatric Medicine and 18% published during the same time in Age and Ageing contained “stigmatizing language.” Clearly, we can do better.
Using terms such as “seniors” and “the elderly” stigmatize because, as the APA notes, they “connote a stereotype and suggest that members of the group are not part of society but rather a group apart.” According to one of the editors of the AP Stylebook, using “person-first” language is better than “identity-first” language. For example, “older adult” describes a specific person, but “senior” doesn’t convey anything about an individual yet can be interpreted in different ways by different people.
Finding the right words
Using the preferred terms is a good start, but authors can do even better in some cases. For example, the WHO report noted that “older persons” referred to those aged 60 and above or 65 and above, depending on the source. The AMA Manual of Style, which also advocates for terms such as “older adults,” says older persons are those who are 65 years or older. Therefore, it’s best to use specific ages, whenever possible, to initially define the population you’re writing about. For instance, instead of “older adults who have experienced a stroke,” you might write “adults over the age of 80 who have experienced a stroke.”
Specific age is becoming especially important as people live longer. Lumping those over 100 years old in with those 65 years and older may not be valid, depending on the topic.
The APA also points out that aging should be presented as a “normal part of the human experience” rather than in negative and fatalistic terms. One example of negativity is referring to age being “an obstacle to overcome.”
Finally, most authors know to use “dementia” rather than “senility,” but it’s also important to specify the type of dementia when possible; for example, “dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease.”
As nurse authors, we have a special responsibility to use inclusive, rather than exclusive, language. When we use preferred terms, we can help avoid stigmatizing older adults.
American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 7th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2020.
JAMA Network Editors. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 11th ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; 2020.
Murphy E, Fallon A, Dukelow T, O’Neill. Don’t call me elderly: A review of medical journals’ use of ageist literature. Eur Geriatr Med. 2022. doi:10.1007/s41999-022-00650-4
Perlman M. 2020 AP Stylebook changes: Person-first language, and the great ‘pled’ debate. Columbia Journalism Review. May 6, 2020. cjr.org/language_corner/2020-ap-stylebook-changes.php
Saver C. Writing skills lab. In: Saver C. Anatomy of Writing for Publication for Nurses. 4th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International; 2021; 81-91.
World Health Organization: Office of the Human Commissioner for Human Rights. CESCR General Comment No. 6: The economic, social and cultural rights of older persons. 1995. www.refworld.org/docid/4538838f11.html
Hi, I’m Cynthia Saver, MS, RN, president of CLS Development, Inc., which provides writing and editing services, and editor of Anatomy of Writing for Publication for Nurses, 4th ed. I’m also past editorial director for American Nurse Journal.
I’ve been a full-time professional nurse writer and editor for many years, and that doesn’t count the writing I did as I fulfilled my nursing roles in clinical, research, education, and management. My passion is helping nurses share their expertise through the written word, including, but not limited to, publication. Writing can be scary and intimidating. I hope to make it less so and to help you develop your writing skills the same way you’ve developed your nursing skills.
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