Aging is a multifaceted process that includes biological, psychological, and social factors. Keeping this in mind, the terms “elder”, “senior”, and “older adult” can have different meanings based on geographic location and the societal norms of that location. In the United States and most other western countries, an individual is considered to be an older adult starting between 65 and 70 years of age, which coincides with retirement and eligibility for age-based assistance programs like Social Security and Medicare. Some terms for older individuals, like “elderly” and “senior citizen”, can be considered offensive. Generally, the terms “older people”, “older adults”, “elders”, and “seniors” are acceptable, though these terms are broad in scope and can refer to anyone between the ages of 50 and 100+. Referring to people by their specific age group (people in their 60s, people in their 80s, etc.) is one way to be more specific when discussing or referring to older people. Terminology is a matter of individual preference and should be treated as such.
More than 1 in 7 adults in the United States in 2019 were older adults (age 65+), and by 2060, this proportion is projected to reach 1 in 4. As older adults become a larger portion of American society, it is important to recognize the unique issues that come with age. Aging increases the risk of many illnesses and conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cancers, arthritis, and heart disease. Additionally, brain conditions like stroke, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s are often diseases of aging and older adults, who are affected more by brain diseases than any other age group.
Historically, older adults in many societies have been seen as burdens or liabilities, especially when one’s worth is measured by labor and productivity. In the United States, new systems and methods for caring for older adults emerged between World War I and World War II. The number of older Americans began to increase due to advancements in economic conditions, technology, and medicine. Additionally, the large numbers of young wounded soldiers that came home from both World Wars facilitated emergence of long-term care facilities. These phenomena, along with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, resulted in increased ability of older adults to pay for and receive care and live with chronic conditions and disabilities.
Though care and treatment for the aging population has greatly improved in the last hundred years, not all of America’s older adults have reaped the benefits. Older Black Americans are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias than older white Americans. Aging people of color face barriers in access to quality care. One study found that 50% of Black Americans, 42% of Native Americans, 34% of Asian Americans, and 33% of Hispanic Americans reported discrimination when seeking Alzheimer’s care, compared to only 9% of white Americans. Socioeconomic status also impacts the health and well-being of older adults. According to the National Institute on Aging, lower wealth has been linked with faster physical and mental aging. Older adults that are economically poor, disabled, LGBTQ+, and/or of color experience compounding marginalizations and are more likely to struggle to thrive.
Achieving health equity and justice for older adults requires continued dedication to their well-being and care, and an ongoing acknowledgement of their value in society. Special attention should be paid to older adults of color in order to improve access to care and health equity. Institutionalizing and operationalizing equity and justice throughout the healthcare and long-term care sectors will require organizations, allies, and systems to deeply center and follow the leadership of people with lived experience. Community-led processes, self-representation, and centering the perspectives and voices of older adults are a few effective tactics communities can leverage to advance equity and well-being.