Should We Become Elderly or Just Grow Old?

The term “elderly” has fallen on hard times.  A recent NPR segment by Linton Weeks reports that listeners objected to an NPR story that described a 71 year-old midwife as elderly.  One listener wrote “I was 70 in Feb and I certainly do not feel elderly …“   Another stated that the midwife couldn’t be elderly if she was still delivering babies.  Weeks concluded that the word “is becoming politically (and politely) incorrect.”

William H. Thomas

William H. Thomas

What does it mean to be elderly?  William H. Thomas, a physician who has written quite a bit about older adulthood, suggests that adults prioritize doing over being, whereas elders emphasize being rather than doing.  He thinks members of our society try to cling to adulthood and view elderhood as a decline from the supposedly higher plane of adulthood’s unending accomplishment.  In contrast to society’s denigration of the elderly, Thomas sees elders as having valuable gifts to offer the rest of society and thinks of elderhood as a different but not lesser way of living:

“Elders develop a new relationship with time.  As the years pass, the pressures treated by living one’s life in the thrall of the future abate.  The past, long exiled from the bustle of daily life, gains new prominence. . . .  Elders recount scenes from their lives, intent upon distilling, from the pale liquid of memory, the meaning of the life they have lived.”  What are Old People For?  p. 127

NPR reporter Weeks notes that, in contrast to the negative connotation that the adjective “elderly” has acquired, the noun “elder” has more positive associations, as in the descriptor “an elder statesman.”  We’re told to respect our elders and, in some cultural settings, elders are seen as repositories of wisdom.   Despite the different valances the terms “elderly” and “elder” have acquired, it should be noted that they refer to the same thing.  Elders are elderly.

It’s unfortunate that so many in our society cling to doing—to proving themselves over and over again by their accomplishments—when they could instead ease into a more contemplative state, that of being.  Old-but-not-elderly adults are like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill again and again and again.  Elderly adults know when to stop pushing.

Adulthood is repetition.  Elderhood is reflection.  Freed from daily toil, elders consider the larger meaning of life’s course.

Adulthood is narrow.  Elderhood is broad.

Adulthood is frenzied.  Elderhood is tranquil.

Adulthood is striving.  Elderhood is abiding.

I’ll be 65 in less than 2 months, so I’m getting old.  My aging happens automatically, but becoming elderly will be the achievement of a new way of living.  I admit that I’m still infected with much of the busyness of adulthood, but I aspire to elderhood.  It would be  tragic to become old without becoming elderly.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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2 Responses to Should We Become Elderly or Just Grow Old?

  1. Peter Everts says:

    Bob, Reading your article on the use of the word “elderly” vs. “elder” and what elderhood can imply reminded me of my conversation with an “older adult” recently. She wished that the educational program called “Elder Hostel” would change its name. She said, “Who wants to feel like an ‘elder'”? I understood the negative connotation which she was referencing. Then I went on to talk about an interesting book I had just read by the Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr entitled Falling Upwards. In it he makes the case for embracing a “second half of life spirituality” that brings about more being than doing among other characteristics and he gives some wise suggestions for those of us seeking to be embrace the value of what in your article is referred to as elderhood. Thanks for your blog!

  2. bobritzema says:

    Thanks for your comment, Peter. Your response to the lady who doesn’t like the idea of being an elder was excellent. Among other benefits, elderhood seems conducive to a particularly rich and fulfilling spirituality. I’ve known about Richard Rohr’s book for a while and have very much wanted to read it. Your post is a good reminder to do just that.

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