I am not ‘elderly’ – The Korea Times

By Steven L. Shields


A recent headline in this newspaper asked, “How old is ‘elderly’?” The question is entirely wrong. I am 69 years old this year (Korean age). But calling me “elderly” is downright offensive. “Elderly” is not an age group. The term is ageist — a biased word that labels a group of people as “other.”

These days in Korea, older adults have become a much-disparaged “other.” Othering is a serious problem. Writers must be mindful of their words to avoid labeling any group of people. A label makes a person or group become the “other.”

Both the government and media are continually worrying about Korea’s aging population. We hear “too many over 65s using public transport for free,” “the pension system cannot handle the needs of more retirees” and “insurance premiums have to increase because the older population puts a burden on the health care system because they use doctors and hospitals so much more than other people.” Many openly voice concern that the Korean people will “disappear” from the face of the earth in a few decades. The list goes on. It’s as if those of us over 6o are causing damage to the nation.

Some of the labels that cause “othering” of older adults as they age include “elder,” “senior” and “the aged.” Such terms negatively stereotype older adults and lead to bias. The fatalistic and negative language about Korea’s aging population fosters discrimination. Because of this continued negativism, Korean society has experienced a marked decline in attitudes toward older adults. On city buses, for example, there is little regard for the specially marked seats. Since I use public transport almost exclusively, I see this daily. It’s become commonplace.

One of the challenges of working in a multi-language setting, such as The Korea Times, is that translation software and language dictionaries rarely do justice to the nuances of modern expression that is free of ageism, sexism and other isms. Language is never fixed in a moment. The Korean language has changed in the decades since I first began learning Korean. Some of the words and expressions common in the 1970s are now quite old-fashioned and, in some cases, not understood by anyone under 40. Likewise, younger generations have borrowed and adopted expressions that I must scramble to understand if I hope to stay current.

I’ve spent my adult life navigating multilinguistic and multicultural settings. I have shared the struggles faced by writers, editors, translators and interpreters to be sensitive to the shifting nuances of language as we tried to achieve the best possible expressions of essential ideas. In my former job, I was able to help standardize a several-hundred-point lexicon of alternative words and phrases that promoted inclusive language for all people — not just the male-female dichotomy (and the English language media in Korea has a lot of sexist language problems, too).

The bottom line of what I am suggesting here is how to speak about older adults without creating bias. After all, aging is a normal human process, not the abnormal characteristic of some “other” group. Discrimination based on age (young or old) is ageism and is inappropriate in modern society.

Age-inclusive language is a human right. So, friends and colleagues, let’s eliminate age bias from our writing. Terms like “seniors,” “elderly,” “the aged,” “aging dependents,” “old-old,” “young-old” and similar “othering” language are to be avoided. Instead, “older persons,” “older people,” “older adults,” “older patients,” “older individuals,” “persons 65 years and older” or “older population” help us move in the right direction. Such language is less likely to create negative stereotypes and discrimination. We can also use age ranges, such as “persons aged 65 and older” or “women over 75.” The same goes for diseases and levels of ability. Never say “diabetic man,” but say “man with diabetes.” We can be helpful and sensitive when we replace “suffering from arthritis” with “diagnosed with arthritis.” “Senior citizen” is not a status. Older age is not a “phase.” Perhaps the media can encourage government agencies to stop the innate discrimination.

Age is not a problem to be solved. Age is not an obstacle to overcome. The aging population is not a catastrophe. Such fatalism only fuels bias. Sure, the increase in the number of older adults must be addressed. Our needs and abilities change as we age, but those are individual rather than group-related. We need to stop defining old age or putting a number on it. At the same time, support systems need to be strengthened — using other factors along with chronological age (such as general health of an individual, their available assets and other factors could be considered).

Because health care, nutrition and other elements of the quality of life in early 21st-century Korea have contributed to the longer lives of our parents and grandparents, we ought to celebrate those advances rather than disparage those who built them.


Rev. Steven L. Shields (slshields@gmail.com) has lived in Korea for many years, beginning in the 1970s. A lifelong member of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea, he has served as a director and president. He was copy editor of The Korea Times in 1977. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect The Korea Times’ editorial stance.

Leave a Comment