Old vs. Elder: What do you prefer?

Old versus Elder: What term do you use or prefer?

What is Old?

The kid across the street yells to his friend “the old lady is out walking her dog again”

These word choices are often hotly debated in the over 60 crowd. What is social acceptable and what is personal preference?  We often use the terms senior citizen, elder and older person?  A young child may refer to “that old lady” with complete innocence. To them, that person is “old.” I think the terms we use all depend on how we use and choose them.  Not to mention our intention when we use them. 

older couple sitting by the water.  Man has an oxygen cannula in his nose and a NAVY cap and is sitting in a wheel chair.
Are these people old?

Intent can mean everything.

Both older and elder are often used interchangeably. Is one better than the other? Is one considered more Ageist?

Adjective or Noun?

Old and elder are similar words and can be used as adjectives.  Only elder is used as both an adjective and noun. For example, there may be two boys in a family, one is 16 years old and one 18 years old. The 18-year-old boy is referred to as the older brother.  A mother could also refer to the 18-year-old as her elder son, and the meaning would be the same.

Elder can also used as a noun whereas older is always an adjective. Senior citizens are often called elders (a noun).

2 pair of running shoes
my “older” shoes are the ones with the green laces

Often, we will say something is older than something else. For example, as a runner I have several running shoes. Some are older. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the shoe is objectively old.  The older shoes may be the shoes I bought just 2 months ago versus the newer shoes that were just bought yesterday. Both pair of shoes are still relatively new, but in this case the shoes with the green laces are older than the other pair.

When to use Older

Man with white beard and hat rowing through what looks like a swamp
Is this man older or is he an elder?

If the main purpose of reference is simply to showcase the fact of advanced age, then older is usually a better word choice. For example:

  • The recent survey of older Americans showed…
  • Older voters tended to show up at the polls more than younger voters, who voted by mail.
  • A higher morbidity exists with older adults who contract COVID-19.

Elder as a Noun

Elder can be a term of specific rank. In some cultures, religions, and literature, elders are figures of high ranking and social influence and may not actually be old (older is generally defined as over 65 yrs).

 When the word elder is used as a noun to describe a senior or older person, it is generally associated with a component of respect for the person’s wisdom, experience, or achievements. As a noun, elder is a term of respect. Although the person is still considered old.  

Elder as a noun can be used in several ways:

  • He is an Elder in the church (can be any age).
  • Winston Churchill was considered an Elder Statesman toward the end of his life in Britain.
  • Grandma was the wise Elder of the family.

The 16-year-old in the example at the beginning may even call his 18-year-old brother ”elder.”  He is probably not using it as a term of respect.

In the The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien writes that Frodo feels “that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more.” The Elder day was reference to the oldest historic age.

Politically correct or not?

Old, Older or an Elder

What do we say and be politically correct?

Elderly – some say this word has acquired a negative connotation and should be substituted with words like senior citizen. Yet, Elder is a sign of respect.

Older can be used to refer to people, animals, objects, etc. There are no restrictions when using older to make comparisons such as my green shoes are older than my red shoes.

Summary

Since both words can broadly mean the same thing, it is important to remember the limitations and connotations of each word.

Elder adds a level of respect that older does not. Elder should not be used when referring to animals or objects.

Older is the better word choice in most situations. Referring to someone that is older is preferred over saying that person is old or elderly.

Let’s educate our friends, family and young people. Hopefully, they will all one day be old.

Join the chat and let me know your thoughts and preferences.

Sandi Feaster

2 Comments

  1. Jeannette on April 23, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    You can call me old as long as I get my senior citizen discount.

    • Sandi Feaster on April 23, 2020 at 1:44 pm

      That is a great attitude! Get the stuff and call me what you want. Put a smile on my face today. P.S. I did get my senior discount at the vets office. In case people didn’t know – ask for a senior discount when you take your dog, cat or other animal into the vet.

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