How old is “old”?

One of the things that causes AgeTech companies like Kraydel difficulty, is how to refer to the very people whom we are trying to assist. Are they “the elderly”, “elders”, “seniors”, “old people”, “the aged”, “geriatrics” or something else?

In the US the term “seniors” has some currency and does not seem to be offensive. But in the rest of the English speaking world, it’s less used. The term “elder”, which we at Kraydel often use, can have connotations of a role in a religious order. “Elderly” and “old” and similar terms just seem a slightly rude way of referring to age-tech users.

To a care home they may be “residents”, and to a domiciliary care provider they may be “service users” or “clients.” But while these terms are professional they only work in a very specific context.

For a while our internal term was “GRAMPA”, but this was our acronym for “Geriatric Receiving Additional Monitoring and Personal Assistance.” Our AgeTech test room is referred to as “Granny’s room” – because it’s furnished like the bedroom of an elderly woman. And while my associations with the words “Granny” and “Grandad” are all strong and positive others might find the terms patronising. So we’re a little stuck here (suggestions welcome). But it brings me to the title of his item. How old is “old”? What is the “age” to which “age-tech” refers?

I’m 58 and like most of my contemporaries, I’m pretty active. I ride my bike around 200km per week. I go on hill walks, play badminton and make a point of walking upstairs (well up to 3 floors anyway). My parents and their peers did none of these things. My father was thin but he smoked and when I was in my teens he wouldn’t have had the breath to play football, come on a bike ride with me, let alone march up a nearby hill to take in the view. It didn’t seem odd – that’s just how “parents” were back then. So by today’s standards, he was old in his 50s and when he retired in his 60s, like many people he expected to spend most of his time sitting about reading and watching TV with some light childminding thrown in. But I’ll not regard myself as “old” until (hopefully) I reach 70 or more, and I’ll only stop being active if/when my body forces me to, rather than because a societal norm says that I’m “done”. And even then, in my head, I may well still not see myself as “old” although I’ll understand why everyone else is now applying that label to me.

Two years ago, on a call with some developers in Sri Lanka, I asked them what age they regarded as “old” and after some discussion, they suggested 55 (and I was 56 at the time, hence a little depressing to hear) so it varies from country to country.

The effects of aging are very variable – my mother’s older sister was (and still is) walking to the shops and church, and getting on and off buses at the age of 91, while my mother had limited mobility from 85 onwards. My mother could hear pretty well up until she died, whereas my aunt was quite deaf from her mid-80s.

I met an 87-year-old woman in a park yesterday who had walked well over a mile to get there and went there every day with her dog. I’ve friends whose parents are in their mid-80s and can only get from the front door to the car with some effort. There are people in their 90s with better health and mobility than those in their 70s. So the term “old” isn’t just somewhat vague in terms of what age threshold it might define, it’s not even very useful in indicating the likely health and capabilities of the people to whom we apply it.

We’re also somewhat inconsistent in our thinking about age when it comes to certain roles. We might not wish to consult a doctor or other expert in his 70s for fear that they are not on top of their game, but we happily elect people in their 70s to run entire countries. Ronald Reagan was in his 70s throughout most of his presidency. Donald Trump is in his 70s. Winston Churchill was 71 when the UK Prime Minister at the end of WWII. High court judges are appointed late in life, need not retire until they are 70, and can continue part-time to 75. So in some contexts, we seem to flip our thinking and associate age with wisdom rather than mental decline.

The insurance industry is perhaps the one that most mechanically applies thinking about age to how it treats its customers. Around 86% of insurers will offer annual policies to people of 70, but this decreases to 30% at the age of 80. Travel insurance costs for those in their 60s can jump by 65% or more. So in the insurance world, “old” seems to begin around 60. Life expectancy in the first world is now 76 for men and 81 for women, and many people are reaching 90+. A quick search online suggests that for surveys and social studies, the category “elderly” begins at 65. A centenarian, of whom there are more alive right now than have existed in the history of homo sapiens will, therefore, have spent 35% of their life in this one category “old”. The number of people living to 100 is increasing dramatically Compare that to the numerous fine-grain categories we have for the young e.g. baby, toddler, child and adolescent (with subset teenager).

All this suggests that perhaps we need to start thinking in a more granular way about “old age” and broadening the category of middle-age to embrace people up to 70 and beyond, and only start thinking of people as “old” at 70+. Yes, people start to experience more health conditions and a decline in some abilities at an earlier age, but so what – we don’t have to link these things together.

One reason I like the industry term “age-tech” is that it makes no reference to the elderly as such, and opens up the possibility of technologies that address a whole range of ages, some of which we may not (in time) refer to as “old”. I could do with some help remembering things from time to time. I certainly need assistive technologies to read the (poorly designed) labels on many foods. But I can accept these changes and the age-tech to help with them, without thinking of myself as old. And if people don’t think of themselves as old – perhaps we should do them the courtesy of not using that label to describe them.