But what it meant to the Greatest Generation doesn't hold for their offspring, the baby boomers.
"Most of us hear the word and think of our parents in wheelchairs," said Marcella Lorfing, who teaches a memoir writing workshop at the Davis Art Center in California. "Now that was elderly."
After a recent Sacramento Bee story described a 60-year-old woman as elderly, one 60-year-old reader called to complain. "What's up with you guys," she asked, "don't you know that's just plain wrong?"
And the statistics, not to mention a cultural shift in attitude in how aging is viewed, back her up.
Those in the 60-and-older crowd are living longer and healthier lives than their parents by adhering to today's doctrines of diet and keeping the mind and body active.
So what is the new elderly?
The consensus seems to be that 60 is the new 40. Or at least a 40 with far different pressures and responsibilities. If not retired, then working with less pressure. The kids are grown and gone. And there's just more time to do fun stuff.
There is no more irony in the Golden Years. They are plenty golden for more and more people.
New notions of what constitutes the elderly focus more on age ranges in the 80s and 90s. Yet even then, it's relative.
Several members of Lorfing's class gave this definition: Whatever your age, be it 55 or 85, add 15 and that's old. And don't forget to adjust that number yearly.
Proof that people are living longer and enjoying extended active years is in the numbers provided by the California Department of Aging.
In California, the elderly age group (defined by the department as those 60 and older) is expected to grow more than twice as fast as the total population between 1990 and 2020, according to the department's Web site.
So baby boomers are still booming, and the projections look good.
"We're all living longer. Seniors are healthy, they're working longer," said Pat McVicar, assistant director with the local Area Agency on Aging in California. "Most of the time, they don't consider themselves as seniors."
Bag the "elderly" tag, she said - the preferred terminology these days is "seniors" or "older adults." Like other experts, McVicar attributes the extended longevity to better knowledge and acceptance of the role of a proper diet and regular exercise.
And, perhaps most important of all, the wonders of life-prolonging and life-enhancing modern medicine that weren't available to earlier generations.
The Area Agency on Aging, which provides mental health and legal services, spends more of its budget on those 75 and older, its prime target population. Less is allocated for those in their 60s.