There are many definitions for “senior citizen,” “older adult,” or “elder” in the United States. In a way, this is to be expected: as healthcare and medical science improves, the average human lifespan gets longer, meaning what was considered “old age” just twenty or thirty years ago might not match up with most people’s perception of the term nowadays. After all, the 2020 census report found that by 2060, a quarter of U.S. residents will be over age 65.
However, this does create some potential challenges, as there are legal considerations that mainly apply to senior citizens. It can be tough to understand the laws that apply the older adults when there is no clear definition for the term. So what makes someone an elder? Read on!
When Does Old Age Begin?
Part of the problem when it comes to defining “old age” is that it’s often seen as a matter of perspective. According to the 2017 U.S. Trust Insights on Wealth & Worth report, Millennials generally say that you have entered old age when you turn 59, while Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation offer the more generous age of 73. Different generations have a different sense for what counts as “old,” with some finding terms like “elderly” to be almost offensive. Coupled with increased longevity and it is no surprise that it is difficult to know for sure when “old age” truly starts.
For the sake of practicality though, it is best to consider the various services and legal considerations that are relevant to older generations and when they gain access to them. According to the Social Security Administration, 9 out of 10 people over the age of 65 receive Social Security benefits, and 65 is the original age that U.S. citizens are legally considered seniors.
Despite this, one’s full retirement age (the age you can receive your full retirement benefit amount) is slightly older. The full retirement age is 66 if you were born between 1943 to 1954, then gradually increases to 67 if you were born between 1955 to 1960. For anyone born in 1960 or later, full retirement benefits are payable at age 67. Additionally, you can get Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62, though your benefits will be reduced if you start receiving them before your full retirement age.
“Old” Is A Context-Sensitive Term
For some people, the 62-67 age range is a reasonable place to point to when defining what counts as old age, but for others, this might not add up. Some individuals who are in this age range still have full independence and show no signs of requiring additional care, which to them might make the senior classification a little strange. An elder is usually seen as “interdependent,” losing their sense of independence as they grow older and are unable to manage life on their own. But as life expectancy and overall quality of life increase, many of the tell-tell signs of old age won’t be so concrete.
So as you can see, there is no set-in-stone way of knowing when someone becomes a senior citizen. Though most Western countries consider the onset of old age to be at age 60 or 65, there is no general consensus on the matter, including what the different terminology means or applies. So while there are certain legal considerations connected to our age and whether we are considered “elders,” it is ultimately up to each of us the decide what it truly means to be “old” in our modern world.
 Associated Press. (2020, February 14). By 2060, a quarter of U.S. residents will be over age 65, census reports say. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/2060-quarter-u-s-residents-will-be-over-age-65-n1136816.
 U.S. Trust Bank of America Private Wealth Management. (2017). US Trust 2017 Insights on Wealth and Worth. http://www.pva-advisory.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/2017-US-Trust-Insights-on-Wealth-and-Worth.pdf.
 Social Security Administration. (2020, December). Social Security Basic Facts. https://www.ssa.gov/news/press/factsheets/basicfact-alt.pdf.
 Social Security Administration. (n.d.). Retirement Benefits. Social Security Administration. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/learn.html.
About the author
Founder/Attorney, CCSK Law
I create customized solutions for families to address their planning needs.
I provide plans clients understand. Also, they make sure they know when to use them, and do so affordably. I love the opportunity to break through the legal jargon to clarify issues. We find success when we work through a person’s situation and put the law to work for them.