Voluntary or Pro bono? The importance of language in valuing older people’s contributions

Reframing our words and concepts is important, especially in the fight against ageism. Ageism is particularly apparent and pervasive in the language we use in western society and it seems to be one of the remaining ‘isms’ people don’t feel embarrassed to express in public. It’s everywhere. We even hear people of quite advanced age speak disparaging of other ‘old people’. How often have you heard ‘She looks good – for her age’? What’s wrong with ‘She looks good’?  We see it particularly in advertising where we’re told how to ‘erase our wrinkles and lines’ so we can look ‘younger’ and ‘defy age’, or are encouraged to participate in some activity or another so that it will keep us ‘young at heart’ etc. How did we get to the point where evidence of a long life becomes undesirable? It should be celebrated.

Our use of language encourages us to think differently about things. A good example of this is the use of the word “Pro Bono” rather than “Volunteer”.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides this definition for Pro bono:

Pro bono refers to any work or service that someone provides free of charge for the common good.

The same dictionary provides this as the definition for Volunteer:

Volunteer refers to a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service: such as
  • one who enters into military service voluntarily
  • one who renders a service or takes part in a transaction while having no legal concern or interest
  • one who receives a conveyance or transfer of property without giving valuable consideration

While both terms are similar, there is key differences. Pro bono work is seen as work “for the common good.” And it is often used for professionals who use their skills to help the community for free. There is more value placed on those who do pro bono work compared to those who volunteer.

We need to choose our words more carefully. Language shapes our thinking. We need to find alternative words and phrases that better express the older persons experience rather than trying to identify with another life-stage. Being ‘young’ or ‘wrinkle free’ doesn’t equate to happiness, enjoyment of life or even the ability to have a satisfying relationship etc. Being older has lots of benefits and often brings with it: more equanimity, less willingness to ‘sweat the small stuff’, increased level of life satisfaction, broader and different perspectives on life etc. So; other positive words such as ‘vital’, ‘adult’, ‘bright’, ‘enthusiastic’, ‘interested/interesting’, ‘skilled’, ‘knowledgeable’, ‘trendy’ etc. need to pepper our lexicon.

Here are some other examples of how we can use language to reframe our thinking and begin to value more what others do:

Lifesaver – friend

Educator & Cultural Advisor – grandparent, aunt, uncle

Pro bono Worker – volunteer

Skills Mentor – tradesperson, crafter

Mental Health Sustainer – baby sitter

Financial Overseer – club treasurer

Health Sustainer – family carer

Security Networker – caring, watchful neighbour

Physical Fitness Champion – walking group participant

Calorific Defender – meal sharer

Preservation Overseer – gardener, home maintenance

Valuing what others do will help combat ageism. It may also help you value what you do too!

About Eve Williams

Eve Williams is the Content Developer and Social Media Administration for Eldernet. She is currently studying towards her Masters at the University of Canterbury. She has a passion for learning new things.