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Out with “the old,” elderly, and aged

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: (Published 08 February 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:316
  1. Marianne Falconer, specialist registrar,
  2. Desmond O'Neill, associate professor (
  1. 1Department of Medical Gerontology, Trinity Centre for Health Sciences, Adelaide and Meath Hospital, Dublin

    In his analysis of the challenge of simultaneously assisting and engaging in a respectful way with groups of differing status in society, the sociologist Richard Sennett reflected on why respect—which, unlike food, costs nothing—is in such short supply.1 One answer lies in the language we use. Listening to the wishes of clients and patients with disability or of a different ethnicity has led to a more sensitive use of language in encounters with people from these groups.

    Older people, who not only are key clients of health services but also experience ageism as a widespread and potent barrier to adequate health care,2 have clearly signalled their wishes to be addressed in respectful terms. In a Europe-wide survey they have articulated a preference for “older” or “senior” as the defining adjectives for their demographic grouping.3 They also said which terms they deemed unacceptable: “elderly,” “aged,” and “old,” with a particularly forceful rejection of elderly. This is echoed by the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, which has outlined …

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