Who are you calling elderly?


NOT all words are created equal. Some are more acceptable than others. “Senior citizen” sounds more acceptable for people over 60, but to some, the word “elderly” brings to mind old people who are sickly and dependent on others.

The Oxford Dictionary describes the word “elderly” as “somewhat old; (of a person) past middle age”.

By that definition, the elderly might include those over 50. What does the word “elderly” mean to you?

Defining elderly

Industrial relations manager Elma Juliet Chan, 48, believes that an elderly person would be someone over 70.

“When I think of the word ‘elderly’, I think instantly of my mother and parents-in-law who are quite advanced in years. My mum is 86 and my parents-in-law are in their 70s,” she says.

Azizah Shariff ... the elderly are those who are frail with age.
Azizah Shariff … the elderly are those who are frail with age.

Homemaker Azizah Shariff, 53, agrees with Chan. She believes that the elderly are those who are frail with age.

For artist Soh Boon Kiong, 49, the elderly are those over 70. An elderly person to him means someone who is experiencing gradual weakness in physical health and strength, as well as mental or psychological state.

“It is an inevitable process and part of the natural cycle of human life,” says Soh.

Public relations consultant Somboon Cheanswaths, 58, believes that even those over 55 can be called elderly. “When you go past the half century mark, I think it is safe to assume you are already in the elderly category.

“I call myself elderly. Most people say age is just a figure and it’s all in the mind. But, I know that age is a fact, especially when you get up in the morning and find it more and more challenging to bend down and touch your toes.

“I have friends who pretend to be 10 years younger than they really are. These are friends I went to school with who try to keep their hair charcoal black in whatever way possible. And the Botox injections keep the faces wrinkle-free, but if you have a permanent smile on your face, that kind of makes one think you’ve lost the plot somewhat,” he says.

Civil servant Kim S., who is in her 50s, believes it is not easy to define elderly, although it is clear by their age, physical appearance and lifestyle. She thinks her dad epitomises the word.

“He is 79 and can’t really see very well at night. He is also not 100% alert as he used to be so he gets lost easily in the night when driving. During the day, he may miss a turn and not be able to find his way back easily. He has had a cataract operation for both his eyes; he is retired and spends his day doing routine things. He cannot hike Penang Hill like he used to (up until 65 he used to hike!). When he gets injured his recovery is slow,” explains Kim.

Exceptions to the rule

Are you defined by your age? Why should people be defined as “elderly” just because they have reached a certain age?

Chan knows of someone who is older than her mum but whom she wouldn’t call “elderly”.

“When I look at her, I do not see an old person but a vibrant and active lady who has much to offer. This lady is so cheerful and still bakes. Recently, my sister and I visited her and she was still busy and bubbly as ever in her cosy kitchen. She hasn’t allowed age to prevent her from living her life to the fullest.

Elma Juliet Chan: 'As much as I want to say that 'elderly' has no negative image, I have to admit it does.'
Elma Juliet Chan: ‘As much as I want to say that ‘elderly’ has no negative image, I have to admit it does.’

“As much as I want to say that ‘elderly’ has no negative image, I have to admit it does. When this word is used to categorise a person, most people would instantly think the person is not useful, slow, ill and unable to progress due to the age factor,” she adds.

Azizah says that her 80-year-old neighbour Uncle Chuah is quite unlike those his age.

“His wife passed away early last year. After an initial difficult few months, he’s now very much independent. He still drives and goes for walks in the neighbourhood. I wouldn’t think of him as elderly,” she says.

Then there is Dr Shigeaki Hinohara (Japan’s living national treasure) who is still a practising doctor at the age of 104!

In that case, do most of us associate the word “elderly” with behaviour and capability?

Just a word

“Elderly” is just a word to Somboon. He doesn’t view it as bad or good.

Somboon Cheanswaths: 'These are just labels to put us in some category or other.'
Somboon Cheanswaths: ‘These are just labels to put us in some category or other.’

“I certainly don’t think the word elderly has a negative image at all. What’s the difference between calling somebody old or elderly or calling them a young punk or green horn? These are just labels to put us in some category or other,” says Somboon.

Senior disability equality trainer and Borneo Post columnist Peter Tan, 49, agrees with him saying it’s just a description of someone’s chronological phase in life, although he prefers to use the terms older persons or senior citizens instead of elderly.

“I think the word elderly does give a negative image, just like the word ageing. People take it as sickly old people. No doubt, it falls true to many people in that age range but such stereotypes make it difficult for the independent ones to do things that are supposedly fit only for the younger people,” says Azizah.

Kim believes that often the word elderly has an adverse image because of the limitations that the age has on people’s activities and lifestyle.

Fourteen-year-old student Ain Nabila sums it up nicely:

“I think elderly people tend to be people that we should learn from. I respect the elderly in general, therefore I have no negative impression of them. But, I find ‘elderly’ as an adjective, negative.

“Nobody wants to be called elderly.”


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