We really should reconsider some of the words we use to describe older people. While it seems like huge sensitivity is taken with terminology relating to race and gender, it seems to remain “open season” for attitudes and descriptions related to ageing.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the synonyms given for ‘Elderly’ and ‘Old Person’ on two reputable websites. (one being the Thesaurus function of the Cambridge Online Dictionary!) Not surprisingly, many of the terms identified are negative in nature.
Now, you might be think this is PC gone mad – however language is a very important tool that can be used to empower and also dis-empower people. Language and custom go hand in hand.
We can all relate to the harmful effects of being reduced to a label at one point in our lives or another. We tend to highlight an aspect of identity even when it’s not in the least relevant to the situation, and it becomes significant in people’s minds. Media outlets have a large role to play in this. A topical example of this currently is the fact that religion is cited in relation to crime when the alleged perpetrator is Muslim, not when they are Christian. This encourages the myth that followers of Islam are violent and extremists. Dispelling these myths are extremely difficult when supposedly credible sources are using this language consistently. Similarly, recognizing an older adult as an individual with strengths and positive characteristics becomes a challenge when we only focus on problems or stereotypes.
The use of stereotypical phrases and wording ignores our individuality. This happens not only via the media. Using terms such as “how sweet,” may sound innocuous, as Ashton Applewhite notes in This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, “‘Elderspeak’—the belittling ‘sweeties’ and ‘dearies’ that people use to address older people—does more than rankle. It reinforces stereotypes of incapacity and incompetence.” This dis-empowers our older people.
What can we do?
At a time when people are living much longer lives, using belittling words to describe a significant proportion of society does nothing to help anyone age well. Looking to the future understand that economic pressures and changes in the way we are living and working will lead to a more dynamic process of ageing so we need to make sure we are using language which is going to help people do well throughout their whole lives, not only in the first half.
Changing the way we talk about aging will have an impact on our interactions with older adults and their quality of life. It can be difficult to change mindsets but we can all start by understanding the impact that our words have on others and consciously choosing to use more positive empowering language about older adults.