Home Aging in Society How Old is Old, Elderly, and Senior?

How Old is Old, Elderly, and Senior?

by Derrick
how old is old feature

So you’ve started getting AARP magazines in the mail of late, and it has you wondering, just how old is old? Is there some type of set date where once you reach it – poof! – you become an “old” person? What about other terms for older people, such as ‘elderly’, ‘senior citizen’, and the like? At what point are those terms applicable to somebody – and most importantly – us?

There is no consistent answer to how old “old” is, but we can find some standards…

Perspective (and Word Choice) Matters

an "old" woman in the eyes of kids
“Three little girls with somebody they consider as old as dirt.

You’ll find that a lot of age-related terms are very ill-defined. Ask a 16-year-old at what age someone is “old” and you’re going to get a very different answer than if you ask a 40-year-old.

Consider “elderly” as an example. “Elderly” is often indicative of frailty and weakness. Being called elderly isn’t exactly a compliment or a goal one aspires to.

In contrast to “elderly,” however, the term “elder” implies a position of esteemed respect. Think about this within church circles and different cultures. “Elders” are sought and respected for the experience and guidance the can offer. To be an elder is in many ways a coveted position.

How Old is Elderly?

Elderly is better defined using someone’s physical condition as a measure rather than their numerical age. A study in the Geriatrics and Gerontology International confirms this. They found that the Japanese view the term “elderly” as applicable to somebody who needs daily assistance in their day-to-day activities.

If you are 90 and go play tennis every morning, you’re probably not “elderly.” If you’re 80 and need help with activities of daily living – you might be.

How Old is a Senior Citizen?

According to Merriam Webster, a senior citizen is “an elderly person” especially one who has retired. This is a useless definition.

In the U.S., qualifying for Social Security is a widely-accepted measure of being a senior citizen, and the earliest age for that is 62. However, Social Security also considers 67 to be the official retirement age.

Sixty-two is also the age at which someone qualifies for most “senior citizen” discounts. However, you have to be 65 to qualify for Medicare.

We can find an answer by accepting all of the above. “Senior citizen” status is hit between 62 and 65 years old.

senior discounts start around age 62
“The rest of us are jealous of your ability to get discounts on the world’s best fast-food coffee, I’m telling you.”

How Old is a Senior?

“Senior” is another vague term. Out of all the terms out there we use to discuss how old is old, “senior” is on par with “elder” as one of the words associated more with respect.

If “senior” is to be taken from “senior citizen,” we can derive the same definition. You are a senior when you reach an age between 62 and 65.

Is Old Just a State of Mind?

I worked with many older adults in different capacities, from working at an Area Agency on Aging to directing adult day services at an Alzheimer’s care center. I’ve met fit “elders” who are sharp as a tack and able to keep up with the grandkids. I’ve also met people far younger than they should be suffering the consequences of early onset Alzheimer’s.

“Old” to me is a state of being, a state of mental and physical health – and outlook.

If you’re in your early 80’s and are going on daily bike rides, traveling to visit grandchildren, going on RV trips, and hanging out with friends on a weekly basis – in other words if you’re living life and enjoying it, then I don’t consider you old. You might be “older” but that’s not the same as “old.”

a man on the beach

It doesn’t matter what you look like, the number of wrinkles you have, or any of that. It was the people who were still living their lives who I knew were doing well – and though they had a number of winters behind them – they were never what I would consider “old.”

The people who just sat at home all day, who never went out and did anything, who didn’t hang out with friends, who put themselves into a state of self-imposed isolation for no reason (and that’s an important distinction), who didn’t regularly exercise, and who consequentially looked as it were the people who I viewed as “old.”

The distinction here is about the individual, his/her state of being – not the age of their body. “Old” as a state of being is when you have thrown in the towel, given up the fight to stay active. It’s when life has left them – joy is gone.

two seniors enjoying life

Plenty of people get around with crippling arthritis, knee pain, heart conditions, or other medical problems that can keep them from doing everything they long enjoyed. Yet – for many – that doesn’t stop them. They can still be happy, joyful even, doing what they could to squeeze as much life out of every day that they could.

If you can do that – regardless of your circumstances – you might have an “old” body, but you end up young at heart.

Final Thoughts

Yes, how old is old isn’t exactly the easiest definition to hammer down. Yet, I believe that these are the closest answers out there.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you think we were spot on here or off? Let us know in the comments below!


Sandra Mullikin July 8, 2023 - 1:37 pm

First off, Donna, don’t count yourself out so soon. What an admirable thing you had done, taking care of your folks. Care taking is the hardest job of all. Of course you are exhausted mentally and physically. You got a lot of fabulous years yet. The trick is to move. Move everyday. Get a fitbit or tracker and track those steps. I had a colon resection three years ago at 63. After I was released from the hospital I could barely walk down the driveway. Everyday I was able to go a little further. Now I go on mountain hikes. I am not a social butterfly but I enjoy talking to strangers when I am out and about. The women will stay a moment and chat. This is good for my brain and mental health. Get out there and walk. Go to the dog park and interact with other owners. Go walk around a Farmers Market. Those people will talk your ear off. You will feel so much better. You will be surprised how much better you feel when you move. I suspect you might have a bit of PTSD after what you have been through. What you did was selfless and amazing. Now it is your turn. I hope you are feeling better.

Donna Curci July 10, 2023 - 11:12 am

Thank you for your response Sandra! I am beginning to feel a bit better but still need self discipline when it comes to taking time for myself again. I try every day to keep busy. My husband and I became grandparents for the first time in March 2022 as my mother was dying. So we can finally begin to have more time with our grandson now. The time with him has been so sweet. We were all out and about yesterday and had so many ch fun! My 4 children have decided to bring Sunday dinners into the picture so we can all get together, mingle, and heal together. I love it! And yes, I would agree I may have some PTSD. I also had my first born son in Iraqi Freedom back in 2005. That was the beginning of some PTSD for us parents. Thanks again, Sandra 😊

Donna May 1, 2023 - 5:25 am

I am 62 years old and both my parents have recently passed away. I was their caregiver and was not easy to watch them die. It has been hard for me to carry on mentally and physically. I feel much weaker than I did before I was their caregiver. I used to be physically active but have not been. I feel old now. I didn’t before all of this but I certainly do now and lack the energy & self-devotion. I’m not sure if I can get back to where I was or if this is how it’s going to be from now on and worse. Most people I met used to tell me they could not believe I was as old as I was because I still had a youthful look but in this shorter amount of time, (1-2 years), with my parents’ situation, I seemed to have an older, stressful look. I’m unhappy with myself now. So, I don’t know how to define old but I guess the world can look at me now and say, yeah, she’s older than dirt.


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