Caring for our elderly – poor dears!

I am hearing increasing talk about “our elderly” in the current crisis.  

As ever, language and clarity of expression are amongst the first victims of emergency.

I want to say a word or three about the indiscriminate use of “elderly” and particularly its emergence as a noun – as in “the elderly” or, even worse, Boris’s description of “our elderly” – poor, incompetents that we are, ready to be patronised by any passing do-gooder. Bah!

There are several different definitions of “elderly” underlying the current widespread use of the word.  Regrettably, I fall into most of them. In the current, coronavirus, case, I’m also to some extent in the category of “vulnerable”.  These words do not define who or what I am to a greater extent than any other characteristic – indeed, they say a lot less about me than some.

Nor am I owned by Boris Johnson, or the community in general or, indeed, by my “loved ones”.  I am, unequivocally, only owned by me.

I have campaigned against the use of “the elderly” for at least 45 years. As with “the disabled” or “the mentally ill”, it reduces a person to one simple fact about them. And, of course, that fact isn’t usually very simple anyway. There are lots of types of disability or mental illness or, indeed, politics. That’s why organisations concerned with disability or ageing and older people have insisted that we always talk about older people, disabled people and so on.  We are all people first; each an individual person. Shared facets of personality or experience come a long way after our individuality.

There are similar problems with “vulnerable”. It’s often followed by the unthinking cliché “in our society” when actually the most vulnerable people are outside conventional society.  A friend, a former Labour Care Minister, used to argue strongly against the easy, indiscriminate use of the word. Being vulnerable, he said, is a circumstance, an event, a condition. It’s not an irrevocable state of being which defines the person behind that fact.  Indeed, it’s often temporary: being over-70 increases vulnerability in 2020. In 1919, it was people under 50. Regrettably, being poor still increases vulnerability everywhere and at every time because it is associated with underlying health and living conditions.

Over the years, colleagues and I have usually persuaded politicians, journalists and others concerned with ageing and older people to talk about people: as in “an older person”.  That gets lost when a crisis or emergency strikes and powerful people revert to easy, unthinking language which emphasises their own importance and authority.

It needs to be challenged. Every time.

Alternatively, you could carry on patronising me.  I might well relish what happens next.



* Gordon Lishman is over 70 and has campaigned for older people and on issues concerned with ageing societies for about 50 years.  Nowadays, he does it with more feeling!

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  • Gordon Lishman – well said. As someone who has been referred to many times as ‘the elderly’ and ‘a loved one’ by politicians and pundits on TV, as though I wasn’t watching, I totally agree with you.

  • I quite like the term “seniors” as it acknowledges to a degree the value of their longer life. It has mark against it because it’s American!

    I understand that in Japan where the *average* life expectancy is 85 (87 for women), they now refer to the “young old” and there are now many in very good health and vigour between say state pension age and 80+ in this country – indeed better than those in their 50s and 60s a few decades ago.

    Apparently my grandmother used to refer to having “her old ladies” round to tea who were in fact younger than her!

  • Brenda. Smith 29th Mar '20 - 7:20pm

    My sentiments exactly, but expressed so much more eloquently than I could have done. I have had many discussions with younger family members, about what I should or should not be doing. I am informed that inNHS terms, elderly is over 60. It is all to do with statistics, and just that the older you are, the more likely it is that you’ll die. As a group. But individual factors matter. It’s just that in this emergency, there needs to be clear and unambiguous message. We wish….

  • Nigel Jones 29th Mar '20 - 9:32pm

    In similar, but not exactly the same, way, I have long objected to the phrase ‘youth crime’. Whenever speaking about it, I insist on talking about young people who commit crime; that emphasises that they are people first, not criminals.

  • John Barrett 29th Mar '20 - 9:47pm

    it is interesting how the same group can be described in completely different ways.

    When it comes to the coronavirus the over 60s are often described as elderly or relatively frail and in need of help or support.

    But when it come to pension age, especially for women who have watched their pension age rise by 6 years, they are young and fit enough to keep on working.

  • Gordon Lishman 29th Mar '20 - 9:58pm

    The reason I don’t use “seniors” is that the UK polling evidence shows that older people don’t like it. The Japanese reference doesn’t only apply to that country; it is statistically a leader (apart from Singapore and Hong Kong), but virtually all countries are seeing similar changes (Russia being the notable exception). The biggest factors in increased life expectancy are declines in peri-natal mortality and beating large-scale infectious disease.
    “In NHS terms” means nothing; there are different ages for different changes, even when it’s all averaged out. Thanks to me and Alan Johnson (honestly), age discrimination is illegal in the NHS.

    I agree about “youth crime”.

  • I guess that in reality you are as old as you feel, out on my motorcycles I am in my teens!! Frankly that is the time when I feel the best. Trying to walk too far is a different ball game. I am 74 but now I am over my latest little problem I am ok except for my back. Standing and walking both show my age but that is in any case due to an accident. Brain is still OK but I have to go out on my bikes for exercise to my back!

  • This is a splendid opportunity to reclaim the original and proper use of the word ‘crone’ – a woman of a certain age (or possibly somewhat beyond it) who has survived a number of life’s vicissitudes and developed a valuable store of wisdom along the way.

    It is an honourable term. I would like to think I qualify for it – but it is for others to award the status!

  • Fair enough on seniors. a link to UK pollling would be interesting though. There’s quite an interesting discussion from America’s National Public Radio at

    While older people, older adults does seem to be thought of as the best, I do have sympathy with the view that it isn’t particularly descriptive. In some contexts 40, say, may be thought of as older.

    May be we need a new acronym? PAYs – people of advancing years? SONiCs – septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians? Third agers (as we have the university of the third age)?

    Increasing numbers are retiring at 55 or semi-retiring or retiring from their first job. I believe you can draw down a private pension at 55. So the “young old” phase of someone’s live is probably the longest and may be the best period of their lives. (Here’s hoping…!)

    But it’s a phase of life we need to think more about both personally and in public policy terms.

    There is though consolation in that I saw recently that people are happiest at age 83!

    But older people/third agers/wrinklies (!) may be should not be so tetchy – more have index linked final salary pensions and own their homes than younger generations and indeed previous generations!!!!!

  • Sue Sutherland 30th Mar '20 - 1:53pm

    At 73 I quite like the term “our elderly”. It’s cosy and loving and goes with “look after” , but it definitely doesn’t apply to me, or my husband or my friends. It applies to people about 20 years older than me.

  • Stephen Booth 30th Mar '20 - 2:04pm

    Why don’t we adopt the far more respectful nomenclature of “Elder”. I believe the Indians use it widely – it implies wisdom gleaned from a fund of life’s experiences and vicissitudes. I think we should apply it to anyone over the age of 60 but keep vulnerable for those with the dreaded “underlying conditions”.

  • David Garlick 30th Mar '20 - 8:34pm

    I agree the GL. Often we people who have been around a bit would be told to respect our elders. The fact that not all elders deserve respect also renders the term elderly meaningless.

  • Tony Greaves 30th Mar '20 - 9:24pm

    Good stuff, Gordon. I remember the day I first met you and I don’t think I patronised you by classifying you as “youth” (though we were pleased to get a new member at the Freshers’ Fair). I think that the automatic classification of over-70s as part of the “vulnerable” is disgraceful. It is arbitrary and discriminatory. I know a lot of people who are quite a bit younger than me who are (sadly) “vulnerable”. I may be before long and no doubt will be sometime. But at present am not. There are a lot of people in their 70s who are fit, healthy and active. I will continue to go out for a decent walk in the wonderful Pendle countryside at least once a week. And I’ll stay well away from anyone else.

  • “Forever Young” Bob Dylan.

    May God bless and keep you always
    May your wishes all come true
    May you always do for others
    And let others do for you
    May you build a ladder to the stars
    And climb on every rung
    May you stay forever young
    Forever young, forever young
    May you stay forever young.

    May you grow up to be righteous
    May you grow up to be true
    May you always know the truth
    And see the light surrounding you
    May you always be courageous
    Stand upright and be strong
    May you stay forever young
    Forever young, forever young
    May you stay forever young.

    May your hands always be busy
    May your feet always be swift
    May you have a strong foundation
    When the winds of changes shift
    May your heart always be joyful
    And may your song always be sung
    May you stay forever young
    Forever young, forever young
    May you stay forever young.

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