Preferred language when referring to older people in a health context

Good practice guide
Good practices guides focus on providing information on a clinical topic.
British Geriatrics Society
Jodi Watt
Terry Quinn
Date Published:
24 April 2024
Last updated: 
24 April 2024
This list of preferred and non-preferred terminology has been compiled to help healthcare professionals, academics and authors avoid language that might be deemed unacceptable or inappropriate when describing the health of older people. 

Language to avoid

Healthcare professionals specialising in the care of older people are well placed to lead by example when describing this population in a person-centred, fair and accurate way.

Language used to describe the health status, medical history and other social or clinical attributes of older people should be free from judgement, non-reductionist, and reflective of the lived experience of the individual.

We strongly encourage all healthcare professionals to consider the preferred terminology outlined below when writing or talking about older adults under their care. In particular, authors looking to submit a paper to our journal Age and Ageing or those writing for our member magazine AGENDA should refer to this guide and ensure the consistent use of preferred terminology in their work.

Language to avoid Preferred language
The elderly/elders
Older people/patients/adults/individuals
The aged
Seniors/senior citizens
Burden (as in 'burden of disease' etc) Prevalence, occurrence
Acopia/acopic Meaningless phrase - avoid use
Unreliable history/historian Meaningless phrase - avoid use
Mechanical fall Meaningless phrase - avoid use
Senile/senility Cognitive impairment/cognitive decline
Demented Has dementia. Person/patient living with dementia. Has dementia due to... [known cause]
Incompetent Lacks mental capacity to make decision
Bed blocker
Delayed discharge/delayed transfer of care/medically fit for discharge; older person living with frailty who has been suboptimally assessed and cared for
Off legs Immobility/Sudden deterioration in the ability to walk
Frail (Older) person with frailty/living with frailty
Chronically ill/chronic illness (Multiple) long-term conditions/multimorbidity
Social admission Meaningless phrase - avoid use
Baby Boomers The generation of people born from 1946 to 1964. Only to be used when discussing topics relating to generations.
Old people's home/Institutional care
Care home, Nursing home (for higher need residents receiving care from registered nursing staff), Long term care facility, Aged care home/facility
Noncompliant, difficult Found it challenging to due to... [if cause known]/non-concordant/non-adherent
Suffering with/from Living with/with symptoms of/with a diagnosis of
Passing away/passed Died
Parkinson's/dementia/etc patient Person living with/Person with a diagnosis of [health condition]
Failure to thrive No clinical improvement/no physical, cognitive, physiological improvement
Faller (Older) adult at risk of falls/with lived fall experience
Defining people by a diagnosis (e.g. "diabetics") "People living with diabetes" may be more appropriate for public-facing communications
Patient Only appropriate to describe a person receiving inpatient medical care. Otherwise is a potentially reductionist term that is best avoided.
Disability/handicap Consider using "activity limitation" or "participation restriction" as alternative language where appropriate
Carer/caregiver/healthcare worker/care worker "Carer" is associated with someone who provides informal or unpaid support. Another term may be more suitable to describe a professional care worker
Geriatric (when used to describe a person) Geriatric/geriatrics in a medical specialty context; older person when describing a person
Wasting away or other description of declining body mass and function Sarcopenia; deconditioning; loss of muscle mass


Assumptions about older people to avoid

Alongside the considerate use of language, we would also encourage people to avoid making sweeping generalisations or judgements when describing the lives and experiences of older adults.

Like people at any other stage of the lifecourse, older people are individuals with diverse backgrounds, values, priorities and lifestyles.  When describing and thinking about older people, try to avoid unfounded assumptions that suggest:

  • They are a homogenous group
  • They have similar priorities and wishes
  • They have children/families ready and willing to care/advocate for them
  • They are lonely or socially isolated
  • They are dependent on others
  • They are 'sweet,' 'little,' or other demeaning and/or infantalising assumptions
  • They are asexual
  • They are unwilling/unable to adapt to new technology or ideas
  • They are not in employment
  • They are sitting on personal wealth or living in poverty
  • They don't have faces or personal identity (i.e. avoid images of older people's hands/walking stick etc as a representation)
  • They are living with poor health and/or poor health defines their life, activities or identity
  • They negatively perceive the process of growing old 
  • They lack agency and/or cannot speak for themselves.

This is not an exhaustive list and we welcome suggested additions via the form at the end of this page.

Other considerations

There are some other more general considerations to take into account when describing specific characteristics of people at any age. The below guidance forms part of the forthcoming updated author resources for submissions to Age and Ageing journal, but may be helpful for anyone describing older adults.

Sex and gender

Decide whether 'Sex' or 'Gender' is more appropriate and use the term consistently; e.g. either use the term 'Males' or 'Men' throughout your article, including the tables and figures.
For clarity 'sex' refers to whether an individual is male or female (this is why you may hear people refer to being "assigned male or female at birth"), and is important when considering how people can differ on the basis of, for example, hormones and physiology. 'Gender' is a construct which focuses on the psychological, cultural, behavioural and social aspects of how you identify, be that as 'man', 'woman' or any other gender identity (of which there are several; transgender, non-binary [can also be shortened to 'enby' or 'NB'] and 'gender non-conforming' [can be shortened to 'GNC'] being fairly common examples).
Sex and gender are not the same thing, but can often be conflated and historically were so. As such, it may be important to clarify or ask for both the sex and gender of an individual.

Health status

Give careful consideration to how you define the disease status of older people, for example whether you are describing 'diabetics' or 'people living with diabetes'. The journal's editorial position is that it is not problematic to use the adjectival noun 'diabetics' in the context of a scholarly article intended for a clinical and academic audience. However, if your article is intended for more public communication, then 'people living with diabetes' would be more sensitive and public-friendly.

Feedback on this resource?

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.