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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!