Relative age also relevant

By Heather McCracken

How old is elderly?

In recent months we've twice been politely and gently chided for having used the term in our news stories - both times in reference to people aged in their 70s.

I asked around the office to get an idea of what age people associated with being elderly. The answers ranged from 65 and over to 75 and over - with the response very much relative to the age of the person giving the answer.

Most agreed it depended on the health and fitness of the person in question - that some could seem elderly in their 50s, while others were the picture of youth into their 80s.

And as we're living longer, perhaps we're also changing in our perceptions of when we start being old.

We may claim a pension at 65, but it's increasingly common to work well past that milestone.

Why do we need to bother with words like elderly at all? Well, because details matter when you're telling a story.

Whether someone is a child, an adult, a man, a woman, a grandmother, a father of seven, all help to build understanding of the story.

And they can be very significant details - in last week's widely reported story about a woman cannabis dealer it would have been a very poor reporter who didn't include that she was a 68-year-old grandmother.

So sometimes we use shortcut terms like "elderly" to quickly paint a picture.

And sometimes people disagree with our assessment.

I'm 36, so you could, I suppose, call me middle-aged.

Technically, I'm in the middle years of my life, but if I read that about myself in the newspaper I'd probably spit out my morning coffee as well.

Age, as Rob Smith eloquently pointed out in our letters page on Friday, is relative.

But sometimes it is very relevant.


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