When do you call somebody “elderly”? When she’s 60? 70? 80? 90? Somebody 10 years older than you are? As people not only live longer, but live better, there is no one-size-fits-all.
Would you call Stu “elderly”? He’s in his mid-70s, skis every winter weekend, commutes monthly to England to oversee one of his businesses and treks semiannually to Asia and Europe for the mere pleasure of it.
What about Sal — he’s in his mid-80s and continues to run a business, even though that entails working 10-hour days that begin at 5:00 a.m. Admittedly, he has slowed down. He used to work 14-hour days.
Pattie, 91, is certainly spry, though she now walks a lot more slowly, with the aid of a cane. I think she qualifies as elderly, though I don’t know how well she would take to being characterized that way.
Journalists and others, beware! Use the e-word sparingly. Don’t associate it with a number, because more often than not, it is meaningless and offensive. The APA Stylebook, usage bible for the press, has this to say:
elderly Use this word carefully and sparingly. Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the story.
It is appropriate in generic phrases that do not refer to specific individuals: concern for the elderly, a home for the elderly, etc.
If the intent is to show that an individual’s faculties have deteriorated, cite a graphic example and give attribution for it. Use age when available and appropriate.
Apply the same principle to terms such as senior citizen.
For more on the use of “elderly,” see media analyst and blogger Jim Romenesko and Huff Post blogger Ann Brenoff. They, together with NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, wrestle with the term after NPR hastily retracted a headline that offended a 71-year-old midwife.