Older, elder, elderly

Overall, the number of elder people (aged over 60) has increased significantly.

You are unlikely to find elder used to modify a noun like people. In this case older would be much more likely:

  • Overall, the number of older people (aged over 60) has increased significantly.

This example provides us with a good opportunity to explore the differences between as well as the uses of older, elder, and elderly!

Elder as noun (1)

These are people are among the older members of a community. They demand our respect not only because of their age, but also because they are often appointed to positions of authority within a community.

US soldiers meeting with village elders
US soldiers meeting with village elders
  • There were in each village assembly several elders.
  • The tribesmen turned to the elders for advice.
  • Local and visiting ministers and elders took turns preaching.

Elders help communities to make important decisions and negotiate with outsiders when necessary.

Elder as noun (2)

Elders may not be old in terms of age. Rather they are relatively old, and therefore command respect, even if they are not in a position of authority.

an elder child
A boy helped with his reading by one of his elders
  • Children were “closely monitored” by elders.
  • (= younger children were monitored by older children)
  • You should always call your elders something respectful.
  • (= older members of a family or a community)

Notice that when elder is a noun it is nearly always plural!

Elder as noun modifier

Here we are often referring to older family members, although even then older is now more common than elder.

  • His elder/older brother is doing military service.
  • The elder/older sons automatically inherit land and other assets.

Other nouns (people) are more likely to be modified using older rather than elder, as we have already discussed with reference to our opening example (above).

Older (noun modifier)

Almost anybody or anything can be described as older, as long as we are talking about the opposite of newer and of younger!

  • I have an older brother called John.
  • (= I am younger than John)
  • Older cars often require more frequent maintenance.

Elderly as noun modifier

Elderly people are quite old. They are probably no longer working. They like to spend time with their grandchildren. They may be experiencing ill health and they may be forgetful. They may need help getting around. They are probably older than 75.

elderly couple
An elderly couple

Elderly as noun

Just as we refer to groups in society using the – the rich, the poor, the employed, the unemployed, etc., elderly people are also often referred to as the elderly.

  • The elderly may develop confusion and anorexia.
  • Cognitive decline and dementia are common among the elderly .
  • Balance exercises for the elderly are still exercises.

Practice

Now check to see how much you have understood!

Select words from the drop-down menus to complete the text. When you have finished, click 'Check your answers!' for feedback.

OK I understand

When I was young my parents always told my sister and me to respect our . When we were kids we were always polite when we met people, and now that we are , younger people are polite to us. However, my sister and I continue to respect , and we hope that when we are members of society, we will also continue to be respected.

Answer Key

Answers here, but only if you're really stuck!

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