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Public editor: When is age just a number?

Jiroemon Kimura of Japan, the oldest man in recorded history, according to record keepers.

Kyotango City Hall/Bloomberg

In a column I wrote last Saturday, I raised the issue of respecting readers and not calling women girls or describing people in their sixties as elderly. I suggested senior was a better term to use.

I was inundated by thoughtful responses from readers who challenged me and other writers over the need to describe age. Here are a few:

"I believe part of the problem with the 'elderly' as you describe it is the media's habit or apparent need to report the ages of virtually everyone it cites in reports. I have always found it unnecessarily invasive and annoying when descriptions of persons are routinely followed by their age in all manner of stories. Why say someone is 68 or 71 in the first place? Who cares? While there may be instances where age is germane to the story it has become all too common a practice in my view."

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This reader agrees: "The media should stop using terms that describe a person's age. Is there no other way to describe people? Maybe they have jobs, volunteer somewhere, take part in a sport. Maybe they are more than just their age."

Here's another who took exception to my statement that senior or retiree (if true) was not insulting and a better term than elderly. "I would argue that none of the above is appropriate, unless age is germane in the context. If the people run over by a car were victims by virtue of age-related frailty, then, by all means, describe them as seniors. Otherwise, what relevance is their age, other than to help identify them? In which case a simple statement of their age, without a descriptor, would suffice. Subsequent references could be 'the couple,' or 'the man and woman,' or 'husband and wife.' Why 'seniors' if their age was not a contributing factor to their mishap?"

What the readers are identifying is absolutely true. It needs to be germane. There are times when age is a key factor in an article. If a woman is giving birth over the age of 50, for example, the reason for the story is her age. But is age overused? The test is to ask whether the age tells part of the story or adds interesting colour to a person's career or accomplishments.

Another reader wondered why I used the example of two women, Hillary Clinton and Judi Dench, to ask whether anyone would describe them as elderly. The reader wondered whether anyone would dare call Bill Clinton elderly. Not likely.

An interesting debate. I would like to hear your view on when it is appropriate to describe someone's age. Please comment below or send me an e-mail at

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