03/21/2013 08:11 am ET Updated May 21, 2013

On The Fly: Did You Just Call Me Elderly?

NPR had a recent story about a 71-year-old midwife. It was an interesting story, but its point -- about how the woman couldn't retire because she lacked anyone to take over her business -- was quickly overshadowed by the headline that appeared on the NPR website: "For Elderly Midwife, Delivering Babies Never Gets Old."

NPR later amended it to "For Midwife, 71, Delivering Babies Never Gets Old" after the subject (and I suspect a few zillion others) complained about the use of the word "elderly." (To be honest, I'm not sure the play on the word "old" emanates brilliance either.)

But the dust-up raised a good question: When is someone considered elderly? It is 65? 75? 85? We live in a time when people in their mid-60s consider themselves middle-aged and the word "elderly" frequently has a negative connotation among those to whom it is being applied.

Media analyst and blogger Jim Romenesko threw out the question to his readers after the NPR headline flap. He also shared his own experience when two Medill University journalism students interviewed him for an assignment. Student #1 wrote: "... There are about two photographs of him [Romenesko] that show up on Google, one an illustration, both out of date. In person, he looks older, thinner. He wears glasses. The sandy blond hair pictured is now more a wave of grey... "

And Student #2 (who Romenesko joked would get an A): "Sitting in an easy slouch across the table at Starbucks, Jim Romenesko has the upbeat bearing of a man half his age of 59..."

The overarching point in journalism circles, of course, is: When is age relevant? The idea here is that it should be included only if it's important to the story.

But there are bigger consequences to how we throw around words like "elderly." It speaks to how we see older people and how we treat them. While a resident of a facility called a "home for the elderly" might legitimately be considered "elderly," not everyone who turns a certain birthday necessarily qualifies. And with the age bubble rising, it's an important distinction.

What we call older people is going to be a hot button going forward, and one we may want to be careful about pushing.
And journalists are setting the scene right now.

Romensko reader Glenda Wolin commented on Facebook about the NPR headline, saying: "The age may be important to the story, but [what isn't important is] ... one person's characterization of the woman's place on the timeline of life. The word is offensive to those of us who have accumulated many years but who function as well as younger people. No, I'm not suggesting some fake-PC term like 'year-challenged.' It's just that there's no good way to determine who fits someone's conception of 'elderly."'

Another reader whose Facebook profile says he studied journalism and is now a social media specialist, Patrick Thornton, threw this in: "The average U.S. female lives to be about 81 years old. If a 71-year-old isn't elderly, who exactly is?"

And reader Nina Lentini noted "I'm 60. My dad is 96. Who's elderly?"

Being elderly, like art, may just be one of those things that is recognizable when you see it. And the problem of course is that we all see it differently.

I recently went to my Aunt Stella's 80th birthday party; the family had to check her calendar to make sure the party didn't conflict with her frequent travels and Stella showed up with her boyfriend in tow; they lean in and giggle a lot together. Aunt Stella is not elderly.

My best friend Amy Pyle's Mom and Dad are 80 and 82, respectively. They walk several miles every day with their dog and are headed to the Cotswolds next month to hike and see Steeplechase. They booked a villa in Italy last summer for Connie's 80th birthday and two years before that, one in Crete, for David's 80th. They still regularly host dinner parties for eight to 10 people and an annual Solstice party for 30 or more. They aren't elderly either.

But then there was the widower who lived alone on my street. A self-employed electrician, he stopped working when he had a heart attack just before his 70th birthday. He suffered a few small strokes over the next three years and needed help managing. When he stopped being able to drive and take care of himself, a social worker moved him into a group living arrangement. I would definitely call him elderly, and he wasn't much older than the midwife that NPR featured.

Having come of age spouting how I would never trust anyone over 30, it's a strange spot to be sitting on this side of the age aisle. But I recognize the extreme importance of language in shaping public opinion and clearly, elderly isn't a one-size-fits-all.

The NPR case is just the most recent, but by far not the only, example of this. Not that long ago, the New York Times reported on an "elderly" woman being struck and killed crossing the street. She was 69. Later versions of the online report on The Times' website appear without the word or an explanation why it was removed.

Philadelphia Metro reported on the death of an "elderly" man in a house fire. He was 70.

The Associated Press urges us to use the word carefully and sparingly. "Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the story." If we are trying to show that someone's faculties have deteriorated, better to offer an example and just say what's happening, say AP.

Perhaps Romenesko reader Len Iwanski nailed it with this: "'Elderly' is somebody at least 10 years older than I am."

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Milestones Through the Years