Viewpoint

When did 68 qualify as elderly?

There has been an outbreak of referring to 68-year-old people as“elderly.”

A Virginian-Pilot news story from last month ran the headline, “Elderly offender to be free again after Parole Board’s about-face.”

The“elderly” inmate in this story is a 68-year-old man.

Earlier this month, the Metro newspaper in New York reported the death of “an elderly assault victim” in the East Village. He was 68.

And a week later, when two boats caught fire in the Baltimore Harbor, The Baltimore Sun reported that firefighters rescued “a seriously injured elderly woman” from the fire. She was – you guessed it – 68 years old.

Since when is 68 considered elderly?

I’ve been living in South Florida for 30 years, and during that time my hair has turned gray and I am closing in on 60. So I can’t imagine referring to somebody who is 68 as “elderly.”

Sure, when it comes to“crimes against the elderly,” victims who are 60 years old may be covered under Florida law.

But good luck referring to any 60-year-old Floridian as elderly.

In fact, in going through years of my past columns I can’t find an instance when I’ve identified any specific person as “elderly.” Like most writers, I use the word “elderly” to describe a theoretical class of people. For example,“elderly drivers” or “elderly voters.”

We know these people are among us. But I’m not naming names. This gives the readers the option to imagine that I’m writing about somebody else.

This jibes with the general advice offered by The Associated Press Stylebook, an authoritative umpire in such matters.

“Use this word carefully and sparingly,” the stylebook advises. “Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the story.”

But it turns out that public opinion research has determined that old age does start at 68.

At least that was the consensus reached by a Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends study, which surveyed 2,969 adults four years ago.

The study also explored the problem with age labels.

That’s because the older you get, the younger you imagine yourself. The 18- to 29-year-old respondents put old age starting at 60. The middle-aged people surveyed pushed back the onset of old age to 65. And those over 65 generally imagine old age to begin at 74.

Labeling the 68-year-old woman who was injured in the boat fire as “elderly” provoked veteran Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre to address these gripes in a thoroughly refreshing column, titled “Try not to provoke the old people.”

While nodding perfunctorily toward “the wisdom of avoiding unnecessary offense to readers,” McIntyre couldn’t help displaying his own displeasure with those who might feel wronged by the word choice.

“If you are old enough to collect full Social Security benefits and Medicare, you are no longer young,” McIntyre wrote. “For that matter, you are no longer middle-aged. And spare me that codswallop about 60 being the new 40.

“I have been 40 and I have been 60, and I can tell the one from the other. Cootdom is the estate for which I have been preparing my entire adult life, and I refuse to be cheated out of it.”

In other news, GET OFF HIS LAWN.

McIntyre is 63, has gray hair and uses a cane sometimes due to his arthritis.

“I’m not fooling anybody,” he said when I spoke to him. “But I would like anybody who gets a senior discount to shut up when people call them old.”

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