Just Who Are You Calling Old?

What’s old?
That’s easy. Anyone ten years older than me.
Yes, that’s an old line, but we writers need to be careful who we call old.
In 2020, calling someone who is 60 “elderly” can anger your core readers.
It can even make readers laugh – at you.

Some readers snicker at Ellery Queen’s description of the “elderly” Inspector Queen who was “not yet 60.” The dynamic mystery writing duo were young whippersnappers of 29 when they created Inspector Queen.
To be fair, I thought 60 was ancient when I was in my 20s. Now, not so much.

Another longtime mystery reader said, “They Found Him Dead” by Georgette Heyer starts with a sixtieth birthday party for Silas Kane who is described as being “very old. As far as I can see, the book was published in 1937.”

How about Edmund Crispin’s “The Moving Toyshop” where the dead victim is described as “an elderly woman in her late 50s”?
What? That’s outrageous!
Except those books were published decades ago, and “old” in 1930 was a lot different than “old” in 1970 – or 2020.

Think back to your grandparents. In 1970, my beloved grandmother was an old woman at age 60. She had a big black purse (stuffed with photos of her grandchildren), sturdy shoes, crispy gray hair and a flour-sack figure. Granted, Grandma had a much harder life than I did, but people used to age faster than they do now.
The government says we’re old at 62. That’s when Americans can start collecting Social Security benefits – and haul them in for a long time. Social Security.gov says, “About one out of every three 65-year-olds today will live until at least age 90, and one out of seven will live until at least age 95.”
Sixty-five is the retirement age in the US, but many people that age still see themselves as young and vigorous.

So if you’re creating an older character for your novel, here are some things to consider:
Older people do not have equal protection under the law. If you have an older person who’s going to be assaulted, many jurisdictions have extra penalties for bashing seniors. In Massachusetts, a man was “arrested and charged with unarmed robbery, assault and battery on a person over the age of 60, assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon (shod foot – aggravated) and mayhem.” In other words, he kicked an older person with his shoe. That’s something to consider when you have your bad guy attack an older person.
Seniors are often stereotyped as defenseless. But that ain’t necessarily so. An 88-year-old woman was assaulted and carjacked in a Walmat parking lot. She fought back with her cane and survived. “I’m a tough old broad,” she boasted.
And speaking of tough, how about the 82-year-old “award-winning female bodybuilder who turned the tables — literally — on a home intruder and beat him so badly after he broke into her house that he had to be taken to the hospital.” It’s true, and it happened in Rochester, New York. The bodybuilder broke a table over the creep – and she was just getting started.
Statistically, that Rochester Wonder Woman would be considered old, even by today’s new and improved standards.

The good news is that old people are getting older. So says CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-age-is-considered-old-nowadays/
So just how old do you want to make a senior character in your novel?
The CBS story says, “Research from John Shoven, a prominent economics professor at Stanford University, suggests that if your chance of dying within the next year is 1 percent or less, you might be considered ‘middle aged.’”
Shoven has a chart that shows “the threshold for men transitioning beyond middle age increased from about age 44 in the 1920s to about 60 today.”

Oddly, 44 would be true “middle age.” Sixty may be the “new” middle age for men, but there are very few 120-year-olds roaming around.
Shoven says, “And finally, if your chance of dying within the next year is 4 percent or higher, you might be considered ‘very old’ or ‘elderly.’ . . . This threshold for men increased from about 65 in the 1920s to 76 today.” So men are “old” at 76.
“Shoven suggests that reduced mortality rates correlate roughly with improved health and vitality at all ages, and can be used as a proxy measure for aging.”
If you’re a woman, you’re even luckier – and younger. Consider this cheery news, ladies, from Shoven.
“By these measures, women today transition out of middle age around 65, a number that has increased from the late 40s in the 1920s. ‘Old’ for women today is about 73, which increased from the late 50s in the 1920s. And ‘very old’ today is about 80, an increase from about 67 in the 1920s.”
People don’t automatically get ‘old’ at 70. Wikipedia sums it up this way:
“Gerontologists have recognized the very different conditions that people experience as they grow older within the years defined as old age. In developed countries, most people in their 60s and early 70s are still fit, active, and able to care for themselves. However, after 75, they will become increasingly frail, a condition marked by serious mental and physical debilitation.”
That’s why my character Margery, in my Dead-End Job series, stays a perpetual 76. I can’t have her aging naturally, or she’ll be too old to go on adventures with Helen Hawthorne.
Personally, I like the question the sage Satchel Paige may or may not have asked:
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

40 thoughts on “Just Who Are You Calling Old?

  1. When my kids were little, old was “when you have lines in your face and walk with a cane.” I asked them how old that would be, and they said 60. I pointed out that we’d just spend the weekend waterskiing with their grandparents, who were both in their sixties. They amended their definition to 80.

    I have secondary characters in my Mapleton books who were in their late 70s, and Holocaust survivors. An editor (this was a good number of years ago), said that was too far in the past for a storyline, and those people were all dead. I pointed out she was talking about my family and many of their acquaintances and indie published that book. Readers didn’t seem to mind.

    • My cousin Henry was a survivor. He died at 87. His favorite phrase in his later years was, “Hitler couldn’t kill me. This won’t.” Heart disease finally caught up with Henry after a very long life.

  2. Great post. I work in a small accounting firm and the owner, my boss, turns 79 next month. He works every day, weekends included and rarely even takes a holiday long weekend off. Age is just a number.

  3. Elaine, great observations. One’s perception of age sure changes as one ages.

    For me, the best parts of aging are wisdom and equanimity.

    Oh yeah, can’t forget senior discounts!

    My second book, Stalking Midas, is about a con artist who targets seniors. One victim is 75. He golfs, skis cross-country, still has a killer left hook, and frequently indulges in bedroom gymnastics (with a bit of pharmaceutical assistance).

    Aging doesn’t have to be boring.

  4. When we were first married, we went to a New Year’s Eve party. I pulled my husband aside and said, “What are we doing with all these old people?” They were in their 30s; we were 19. My husband’s parents are now 87 and 90. They are just finishing a tiny house they built from scratch, they both climbed on the roof to shingle it, and managed to lift beams and roof sheeting by inventing smart ways to work. I don’t see them as “old people” at all, and my children have said they’re middle-aged, though maybe on the upper end. My, how perceptions change.

  5. Elaine,
    Remember when I broke my arm Roller Skating?
    I was 62. That was 20 years ago and we are still here
    and still going strong.
    Jinny

  6. Good post, Elaine. I used to think old meant 40s, then I arrived there. Oops!

    My main character is over 70 and runs a B&B with his wife. He still chops his own wood, goes hunting and fishing, and skis.

    When I think of getting older (and I’m officially old per Social Security, I guess…but I still feel like I’m in my 30s), I describe my mindset as “peaceful”. It takes a lot to bother me or stir up the froth within. 2020 has tried but so far, the shenanigans taking place haven’t disturbed me that much. There’s nothing new under the sun, says Solomon the King.

    I look at my future, maybe another 20 years or so, with expectation and a settled calm. 20 years ago, I’d be stirring the froth every day. 🙂

    • “When I think of getting older (and I’m officially old per Social Security, I guess…but I still feel like I’m in my 30s), I describe my mindset as “peaceful”. It takes a lot to bother me or stir up the froth within”
      You’ve described my feelings, too Deb. Is this wisdom or have we seen it all?

  7. Just got off the bench after chest pressing 180 lbs. Before that I ran two 11-minute miles. I turn 80 in three months. Our community recycle crew is mostly octogenarians. The youngster is 70. We may not be typical, but we’ve got a lot of company. People are more aware of health standards and we have more ways to eat and work healthy than previous generations. Social media puts it out there too.

    The protagonist in my current WIP is a widow of 42 trying to restart her life in post-war America, but the year is 1947. She’s still attractive and healthy, but I have to be careful not to imbue her with today’s iconic health-conscious women of vigor. She’s pressured to believe her best years are behind her and she should start settling for dotage. She’s strong and capable but it’s still a man’s world. Her expectations are colored by her post-Victorian upbringing.

    I have to stay mindful of the contrasts between her times (my own early childhood) and today. She travels most places in a dress and heels, not tight-fitting jeans and NIkes. In a chase scene she can’t outrun a man, so has to resort to other devices to escape.

    It’s a fun job but someone has to do it.

    • Glad you’re working to get the woman in the right era. I still remember when a “lady” never left the house with a hat and gloves. I love historical novels that are faithful to the times.

    • Dan, I would love to read your book! I’m a fan of WWII era genre (altho, admittedly, mostly war stories, specifically European theatre), but the fact that you’re working with a female character, postwar, is fascinating!
      Although some women were beginning to flex their newfound strengths, there were still psychologically restrictive holdovers, depending on social status.
      (This story is for Elaine, too, as I see she’s already commented on this topic:) 🙂
      A friend told me of how, in the early 50’s, she’d gone to downtown Dallas on errands and, while slipping an envelope into a mail slot, had somehow managed to send her glove with it. She was so mortified that she went directly home without finishing her errands.
      …because she was missing a dress glove!
      She said, “A proper lady didn’t leave the house without an accessorizing hat, purse, shoes, and (decorative wrist) gloves!”
      We both laughed about her recollection, and yet I just cannot imagine being that concerned over an accessory. But that was the mindset for some!

  8. I’ve always enjoyed being around older people. Good thing — now I am one! It takes more discipline and energy to stay in shape, but the wisdom that comes with age is priceless.

    I salute Dan for those two 11-minute miles. Maybe we could have a virtual TKZ road race one day. Age-ranked, of course.

  9. My Greatest Generation parents in their final years could have kicked my current late-sixties butt at anything physical. Heck, Mom in her nineties could outwalk me when I was much younger, and Crazy Cat Cousin in her early eighties just embarrasses me with her energy. State of mind, more than age, folks.

    • Amen. When I was in my teens, my grandmother would take me hiking in the Missouri woods. She’d often bring a shovel so she could transplant small trees and ferns. We kids would be exhausted and she’d cook dinner.

  10. Great post, Elaine. Many folks in New England tune in nightly to watch Chronicle, including Dan Brown who lives in Rye, NH. Fritz Whetherbee, the local historian who has his own segment on the show, is 83 years old. Last night, he started his segment with “At eighty-three, not many things excite me anymore. But last Christmas, something amazing happened. I got my mojo back!” His daughter bought him a drone, and breathed new life into her dad. Now, he’s seen everywhere operating that drone. Adorable!

  11. As a man who’s 41 and just started seriously writing, it feels good to read your piece and imagine I’m not “too old” to get a new life started. If I went in a time machine and told my teenaged writing self and told him this, he’d definitely tell me I was way too old and why bother? Good stuff.

    • I had a well-worn AARP card before I even toyed with writing. You’re a kid, Philip!

    • That’s one of the good parts of writing, Philip — the old you are, the more you have useful experience. You’re not like a ball player or a ballet dancer — age makes you better. Welcome to the tribe!

  12. I am 57. I have been working full or part time for “game piece pizza” for 35 years. I work the weekend closing shifts. Most of my crew mates are under 30. I run rings around them every night.

    Want one of your characters to blow a kiddo’s mind? Use the line I have used a few times. “What was your mother’s madien name? I may have gone out with her once or twice.” Freaks out a high schooler every time.

    This discussion reminded me of SAME TIME NEXT YEAR, a wonderful little love story. A couple meet one night a year and have a one night stand at a little motel. The caretaker is “Old Man Chalmers”. At one point Alan Alda says ‘we must be the same age Old Man Chalmers was when we started coming here.”

  13. My grandfather lived to be 90. He used to volunteer at a hospital. When he turned 80 they made him stop pushing wheel chairs. Or as he put it, “helping the old people.”

  14. Great post, Elaine! I’ll never forget what my first boss at the library said to me when she retired. Despite being 66 (this was 1993), she felt eternally 21 and wondered who that old person was looking back at her from the mirror. She stayed young at heart, and active, even subbing at my new branch when she was 80.

  15. A 51 year old woman who’s physically fit, runs, does yoga, whatever, is middle aged to most people. But if that same woman is looking for a job, she is downright old, ancient and nearly dead even, to HR departments. And if she’s pushing or past 60, yikes! Better call 911 and have her hauled out on a gurney. Age discrimination is very real, if all but unprovable, to this day.

  16. Terrific post, Elaine. I’ve noticed that many of my older (than I) male friends hit a plateau at age 73 or so and experience a rapid decline. I think that it might be because they stop working. I know of a woman in her mid-90s — the mother of one of my grade school classmates — still lives independently, does her own shopping, and taught herself to play dobro a few years ago. Oh, and she laughs at my jokes, thus proving herself to be cognitively sharp. I want to be her when I grow up. Thanks for the insight.

  17. You struck comment gold with this piece, Elaine, for good reason. We’re all conscious of aging – at least at our young age. Makes me want to share a short story.

    Mum was forty when I was born. My earliest facial recognition was seeing four lines on her forehead. When I got old enough to think and ask, she told me her forehead lines meant 10 years of life for each line and ten degrees of wisdom. I kissed Mum’s forehead after she passed and I counted nine lines. I hope I come close to my Mum’s age and smarts.

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