CYIL Vol. 7, 2016

VERONIKA BÍLKOVÁ CYIL 7 ȍ2016Ȏ of older persons may vary even within a single society. 17 People also tend to associate older age with certain features which may be both positive (wisdom, experience, stability) and negative (health problems, dependence, frailty). Thus, while “the ageing process is /…/ a biological reality which has its own dynamic, largely beyond human control”, 18 the definition of old age and older persons is socially constructed and conditioned. Unlike certain other special groups, older persons do not exhibit any in-born feature (sex, colour of the skin) that would easily tell them apart. Unlike children, the other special group defined by age, older persons do not have at least one clear determinant point in time (death not being a real equivalent to birth, because while we all born as children, we do not all die as older persons). The group to which older persons bear the strongest resemblance seems to be that of disabled people, as the concept of disability is also socially constructed. 19 The uncertainty as to who older persons are translates into the plurality of terms used to label them and the uncertainty as to which of these terms would be the most appropriate in the legal discourse. In natural sciences, such as medicine and geriatrics, the terms elderly, old people/persons, and elders are mostly in use. None of these terms, however, seems suitable in the legal context. 20 The terms elderly and old people/ persons have negative connotations, suggesting frailty, inability or dependence. The term elders may be misleading, because in addition to persons advanced in age, it also denotes persons with special wisdom or spiritual or community leaders. The WHO in its documents refers to older adults. This term, however, “rolls off the tongue thickly in a way that suggests a euphemism for something less comfortable, a reluctance to offend perhaps”. 21 Next in row is the term seniors, which is common in the popular literature. It is borrowed from the Latin senior, a comparative of senex which means old or senior. Originally, it referred mainly to a social status and, in fact, it yielded titles of respect in English (Sir) and in other languages ( sire in French, señor in Spanish). This meaning has been gradually abandoned and nowadays, the term mostly describes people of a certain age. In some countries, however, senior gets a narrow meaning, as it is reserved for people benefiting from certain social (governmental) programs. In view of all these linguistic pitfalls, the term older persons seems the most suitable (or the least unsuitable) for the legal vocabulary. This term is used in most UN sources and progressively makes its way to official documents of other international 17 Thane, for instance, shows how in the 19 th -early 20 th European societies, the old age limit was construed differently for women (45-55) and men (55-75), depending on the moment they typically underwent a transition in their livelihood. THANE, Pat, The muddled history of retiring at 60 and 65, New Society, Vol. 45, 1978, pp. 234-236. 18 GORMAN, Mark, supra note 15, cit. in WHO, Definition of an older or elderly person, supra note 12. 19 See WENDELL, Susan, The Rejected Body, New York: Routledge, 1996 (especially chapter 2: The Social Construction of Disability, pp. 57-72). 20 SCHMITT, Alex, “Elders?” “Older Adults?” “Seniors?” Language Matters, GeriPal, 21 March 2012. 21 Ibid.


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