In my early days as a researcher, I had proudly produced what I believed to be an excellent piece of research only to be told – after the fact, of course – that it wasn’t what sponsors were looking for. It was easy to blame them; their real dissatisfaction was a result of hoping for a fairy tale with a happy ending and getting the facts of life instead.
The big realization for me was how I had failed to get all involved to agree on the definitions of what we were looking for before we started, and I vowed it wouldn’t happen again.
Years later, along came an assignment that was to focus on the attitudes and behaviors of a highly targeted elderly population.
Like many words, “elderly” is defined in many ways, and we needed to ensure that sponsors and investigators agreed upon just what “elderly” meant for our purposes and why.
Who are the elderly?
The most common way to define elderly is by age. Not so simple as it seems, we found definitions of 55, 60, 62, 65, and 70 in published studies. These differences made age-based data comparisons from one study to the next quite useless.
Another way of looking at age is through the eyes of the beholder. To a child, 18 is old. To a teenager, 40 is ancient. To a 60-year old, 80 is elderly.
Dictionaries say elderly is defined as “characteristic of later life” and “showing signs of age.” Less attractive synonyms include “over the hill” and “on one’s last legs.”
So what are some of the signs that are characteristic of later life?
The process of aging is a biological reality that occurs at different rates for different people. Some in their 70s are highly active; others in their 50s are well into decline. Many people with excellent vision are surprised to find they need reading glasses when they are in their early 40s.
It’s not like stepping though a doorway as a fully-functioning adult and coming out the other side as a blithering idiot.
For most, it is more like slowly going down a very long slope.
As our skills decrease, our feelings of disorientation, frustration, and anxiety increase. And these emotions lead to feelings of vulnerability, which is defined as “needing special care, support, or protection because of age or disability.”
We ended up evolving a more holistic definition that included chronological age, but was more focused on diminishing physical, sensory, and cognitive skills and needs for special care.
Never assume we all share the same definitions. When the need arises, create your own team-evolved definitions.