Ask ten different people at what age someone is considered an “old” person or a senior citizen, and you’ll receive ten different answers. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll have hundreds of thousands of differing opinions. The fact is, what age is considered elderly can be a very subjective topic.
Some people consider a 60-year-old person to be a senior, while some would argue that that person is still very young. While one baby boomer (someone born between 1946 and 1964) might think of themselves as a middle-aged adult, others may consider themselves senior citizens.
As the caregiver for your parent, you might be faced with important questions about old age: At what point is your parent considered a senior citizen? When does a middle-aged person transition into old age? And how should you refer to your parent (besides just saying “Mom” or “Dad”) in a way that isn’t condescending or derogatory?
Let’s take a look at some age-related terms and dive deeper into the ultimate question: At what age is someone considered a senior?
Understanding age terminology
There are all sorts of words and terms floating around that are used to describe older people. Sometimes these words are used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be. Some words have certain connotations that aren’t always appropriate, depending on the circumstances, while others are generally accepted.
Below you’ll find some of the most common terms used to describe older adults.
Generally, the word “senior” on its own is a good way to describe an older adult. The word itself carries positive connotations. After all, the senior employee at a company or the senior-most player on a sports team are seen as experienced and respected. But you should be careful not to assume any older adult is a senior — someone on the younger end of older age may not think of themselves as senior at all.
The term “senior citizen” typically refers to someone who is retired and above the age of 60 or 65. That may be because in most industrialized Western nations, around 60 or 65 is usually the age at which an older adult can start receiving social assistance programs based on their age — Old Age Security in Canada, for example. But be aware that while the term “senior citizen” is commonly used to describe older adults, some find it patronizing.
When someone is in an advanced stage of life that is well past middle age, they might be referred to as “elderly.” This term often carries negative connotations and might suggest that someone is frail or in poor health. We’re willing to bet that your mom or dad wouldn’t appreciate being called an elderly person — the same is true for most older adults. In fact, while the term “elderly” is still commonly used, many experts consider it to be an outdated term, and maybe even ageist.
Simply describing someone as “old” is, of course, subjective. An 18-year-old person might seem old to a six-year-old, even though the 18-year-old is still in their youth. Calling a senior person “old” is generally considered rude, but referring to someone as “older” is more neutral. “Older” implies a progression of age without the negative connotations — that’s why you’ve seen the term “older adult” appear commonly throughout this article.
Geriatric care is a branch of medicine focusing on older adults and the health care needs of aging people. This can include nursing care, end-of-life care (hospice), and much more. The term might be used commonly in the world of medical care, but it isn’t generally used outside of that context. It carries connotations of the person being worn out, senile, or having a low life expectancy.
As you can see, there are many terms out there to describe an older adult. Some of them carry negative undertones while some are more neutral in nature. But we’re still faced with the question: What age is considered elderly? Is there a specific time when old age begins, or a cut-off between middle age and old age?
When is someone considered a senior?
There are different ways to approach the subject of what age a person is considered a senior. It varies widely depending on geographical location and social context, but the field of gerontology — the scientific study of aging — gives us a few commonly accepted ways to define what “old age” is.
Defining age by chronology means considering the number of years that have elapsed since a person’s birth. Of course, the numbers themselves are subjective. Senior citizen discounts might be given at age 50, or at age 65. Retirement age might be 50 in one country, but above 70 in another. So defining old age by years of age can be tricky, as we’ve already seen.
When you define old age by someone’s social role, you’re considering factors like when someone retires from the workforce, when the person starts receiving forms of social assistance, or when the person’s own children have children of their own. Again, these factors are not set in stone — retirement age can vary widely, and people can become grandparents at younger and older ages.
Physical health or appearance
Defining someone’s age by their physical health or appearance means that you might consider them a senior when they get grey hair and wrinkles, or start to experience physical or cognitive declines usually related to older age, like Alzheimer’s disease. This is, of course, a slippery slope toward ageism — you don’t want to assume that someone is old just because of their appearance, or that their health status is a direct result of advanced age.
It’s also important to consider that the age someone is considered a senior has changed drastically in a historical context. People today are living much longer than they did hundreds of years ago, and even only a few decades ago.
In Canada, the average life expectancy for males born in 1990 is 74, and 81 for females. By comparison, the life expectancy for those born in 2012 increased to 80 years of age for men and 84 for females.
What’s more, according to the Canadian census, the number of people aged 85 and older grew by 19.4% from 2011 to 2016, which is nearly four times the rate for the overall Canadian population. As people live longer, the threshold for what age is considered elderly is shifting.
If you look back in time, someone who was only 45 years old may have been considered a senior, but today that person is thought of as middle-aged. The point is this: Whether it’s in a historical context, or judged by chronological age, social role, or physical health, age is subjective and means different things to different people.
The bottom line: What age is considered elderly?
It’s clear that no single definition can capture what older age really is. Your parent might be a resident in a retirement home but still feel young at heart. Mom or Dad might be just reaching retirement age but be plagued by health problems usually experienced by much older people. It all depends on the circumstances at hand.
In most industrialized Western nations, someone is considered a senior by the age of 65 or so. But remember: That number is based primarily on retirement age and the age at which social benefits kick in. Many people would not consider someone a senior until they’re at least over the age of 70. It’s simply a subjective matter.
For your parent, what is considered “old” is entirely up to them. We all have to define it for ourselves.
What are your thoughts on what age someone should be considered a senior? Have you had these kinds of discussions with your family members? We would love to hear your opinion.