Why we should banish the word ‘old’ from the dictionary – and what ‘age’ actually means

“Congratulations on turning an age when you can stop pretending to care about pop culture, technology and your appearance,” says the birthday card, illustrated by a drawing of a cake and candles in the shape of the number 50.

The one next to it says: “I’m not making any age-related jokes because I genuinely feel bad about how old you are.” And the one after is probably the most depressing: “Don’t bother taking life too seriously from now on. At your age, no one will take you seriously anyway.”

We’ve all stood in card shops looking for something that will make a friend chuckle, but how funny are age jokes really? Aren’t they all just a little lazy and ageist?

Some people would say they’re the paper equivalent of a harmless nudge in the ribs and a mild joke at someone’s expense, but I’d argue that they’re a symptom of how endemic ageism has become.

Defining old

A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that governments around the world need to challenge ageism in their policies and planning, and defines an older person as someone who is beyond the midpoint of life expectancy in a particular country. That means a 40-year-old would be defined as ‘old’ in the UK.

“If we could abolish the word ‘old’, probably the WHO would do that, in the sense that it is generally used in a derogatory way. We know it’s a social construct in the way that it’s often used,” says Alana Officer, a senior health adviser at the WHO and co-author of the World Report on Ageing and Health.

“We think so much about attitudes around degeneration, reduced potential, [being] dependent or frail, and if that is how we are thinking, because that’s what comes out in humour, or what we see in the media, then that’s going to have a huge impact on how we live our lives.”

Biological ageing versus age in years

“We found it interesting to look at what do we understand as ageing, and the relationship between our biological ageing, in terms of our mental and physical capacities, and our age in years,” Officer says.

The report says that biological ageing is only loosely associated with someone’s age in years, and while we do have some responsibility for our own health as we get older, our wider environment has an impact too.

“If you have green spaces, a ‘walkable’ community, if you can get to local shops by walking and you don’t have to get your car out then you are much more likely to do physical activity. These are all development, transportation and housing issues.

“While we think of it all as an individual responsibility, in fact a huge amount of what we do as individuals is directly determined by the environments we live in.”

Government policy and ageing

Policy also has a huge impact. For example, if a government will provide benefits such as a pension to someone when they reach a certain age, the WHO argues that this could be discriminatory and can negatively impact poorer people.

It looked at life expectancy and disability in the UK, and found that more than three-quarters of people had experienced some form of disability by the age of 68 (the state pension age), most of whom lived in poorer neighbourhoods.

It added that the length of time someone with a disability might be expected to live beyond 68 is likely to be less than for someone in good health. “Policies that limit the availability of resources strictly on the basis of chronological age can reinforce and extend inequity because they can deny resources to those who need them most and, at the same time, provide them for longer to those who need them less,” the WHO says.

The future of ageing

However, the future need not be the kind of scene that featured on your last birthday card. Officer cites the Men’s Sheds initiative – where men in a community meet in a large shed to do DIY and other craft jobs – as an example of one of the ‘pockets of brilliance’ that embraces ageing.

“Men’s Sheds create an interesting space for men to do things together around activities. They talk about health and other social issues, which they may feel more comfortable doing so with their peers while carrying out activities.”

Read the WHO World Report on Ageing and Health