Let’s change our language to reflect the Older Americans Month 2021 theme of Communities of Strength.
This week marks the first week of Older Americans Month 2021, and it has a powerful theme: Communities of Strength.
The text released from the Administration of Community Living, which sponsors the month, says: “Older adults have built resilience and strength over their lives through successes, failures, joys, and difficulties. Their stories and contributions help to support and inspire others.”
With the powerful theme of Communities of Strength as a rallying cry, is it time for all of us to make a renewed commitment to reframing aging and to rejecting terms that diminish older adults and reinforce negative stereotypes?
Here are just a few words and phrases it’s time to discard, if you haven’t already:
Senior, senior citizen, elderly
In 2020, the Associated Press announced changes in its Stylebook, recommending that “older adult” or “older person” be used instead of senior, senior citizen, and elderly, and also suggesting the use of descriptive language, e.g., “our programs serve people age 60 and over.” Why? Because research by FrameWorks Institute shows that these terms are often associated with, and reinforce, negative stereotypes about older people.
Silver tsunami, grey wave, going off a demographic cliff
Often used to describe our aging demographics, these phrases suggest that older people are a demographic disaster. In addition to casting older adults in a negative light as economic burdens, the metaphors aren’t accurate. We have known about the aging of America and the world for some time. We know how older adults contribute significantly to our communities and the workplace. What we need to do is come together to develop innovative, age-friendly programs, policies and communities in which people of all ages can thrive.
Still, in front of a verb, applied to an older adult
As in “still” working, still doing [whatever it is]. No, I am not “still” working, which would suggest that maybe working at my age is an outlier. I am working, as are millions of older adults, because we want to, because we need to, and maybe a combination of both. Working brings purpose, passion, paycheck and social connection. Just drop the “still.”
“Weak, vulnerable”’ in front of any term describing an older American
Repeated ad nauseam by well-meaning elected and public health officials and almost everyone else during the pandemic, this term became associated with older people and cemented another stereotype that is contrary to communities of strength. People who need extra supports to thrive in community aren’t weak and vulnerable; systems that don’t provide those supports are what is weak and vulnerable. Let’s make a renewed commitment to strengthening our policies and systems, so those terms can be eliminated from our vocabulary altogether.
You look great for your age
Sometimes words meant to be complimentary, aren’t. This phrase suggests that as you age, you are supposed to look a certain way—not good. This video by AARP and SoulPancake explains why. A great alternative? “You look great!” Period. Full stop.
Young lady or young man
When used to describe someone older than 18, it’s diminishing. Other words in this category? Calling older people “sweetie”, “honey”. What may seem like a term of endearment infantilizes older people, and makes us seem less capable than we are. And research shows that experiencing everyday ageism has negative impacts on our health and wellbeing.
It’s time for those of us who are celebrating Older Americans Month 2021, and who recognize the contributions that older adults make to our communities, workplaces and overall society, match our words and messages with our commitments, and end ageist language. Together.
Janine Vanderburg directs Changing the Narrative, a campaign to change the way people think, talk and act about aging and ageism. Our end game? To end ageism.
I wholeheartedly support your work and this effort in particular. It is very important. Raising consciousness about ageism and working to eliminate both cultural ageism as well as internalized ageism is key part in the intersectional effort against all forms of prejudice. Keep up the good work. I also want to suggest you don’t keep using the descriptor “OLDER ADULTS”. The better term is OLDER PEOPLE. Because of heretofore unseen longevity, our species is in a new phase, a post-adulthood phase, with its own standards. We don’t have all the words yet, but to use the standards of adulthood is demeaning and ageist.
Marc, a really interesting idea. The terms “older adults” and “older people/older persons” came out of the FrameWorks research, and I’m intrigued with what you raise about “older adults.” Worth discussion!
Among African-Americans and many people of African descent, we often use the term “elder.” It connotes the opposite of “elderly” or any of the other patronizing phrases that seek to avoid the idea of being old.
For people of African descent, elders are essential. They are esteemed central pillars of the community who carry language, memory, and tradition. We offer elders our deference (and the best seats at church) not because they are fragile, but because they are necessary to our communal identity. When I offer to make a plate for an elder at a family gathering, I am expressing my gratitude for their being. To be an elder is an earned status, something one must live up to.
As I enter older adulthood, I am apprenticing to become an elder myself. I look forward to being called by that title within my community instead of some silliness like “senior citizen.” I am curious about what other cultural ideas and language about growing old exist in other cultures that venerate, rather than marginalize, their elders.
Mistinguette, love this and wish that all societies considered elders essential. Janine
A quote from a job interview with a 70 year-old applicant who recently relocated to the area. Interviewer: “What made you decide to apply for this position?” Interviewee: “This work has been my professional passion for years. I am sure I could be an asset to your organization. I also need to continue to work.”
Interviewer: “Oh, I know. My father has to keep himself busy also.”
Keith, you can’t make this stuff up, can you? Thanks for weighing in. Janine
Unos de los grandes desafíos de la sociedades postmodernas es la erradicación del edadismo, como herramienta de discriminación por edad y en este contexto y escenario el protagonismo principal es de todas las personas mayores de 65 años y más en tiempos de vejez sin fronteras.
¡Qué gran verdad! Janine
I think you can go overboard here. I get that elderly has negative connotations. Older people – acceptable. Explain to me what is wrong with older adults? I have no problem with senior either, and I am one. Do kids have a problem being called kids? Or children? Should we always call them young people? How about teens? I think by overreacting to the identifying words, people are feeding into the myth that aging is a negative event. And by the way – some adults are vulnerable. They may have cognitive challenges and be at risk of exploitation. You sometimes need a way to identify people. Let’s not get caught up in labels and look for ways to interpret them as “offensive.”
So, Mary, what research shows us is that the terms senior, elderly and senior citizen reinforce in the minds of the general public all of the negative and inaccurate stereotypes about older people, stereotypes that lead to age discrimination.
So true…all of it. Well said!
Having spent a great deal of time working in the pandemic response, I want to erase the words “vulnerable” and “frail” from our vocabulary. They evoke images of helplessness and diminish a person to nothing beyond a series of needs when they also have assets and resilience.
I am working toward making our culture age-ready and welcoming, inclusive of all ages and stages of life.
I love all this and am excited about the possibilities of joining in. I have an equine facilitated Learning and coaching program called “Horses Helping People” and my friend and colleague, Kay Alexander has her program, Peagasus Equine Therapy. For the past few years we have been planning to do a series of workshops called “The Vintage Years”, A Woman’s Journey into Elderhood”. Last year wasn’t a go but we’re going to launch it this year so would love to connect with all who are inspired to ‘change the narrative’ and a lot more….We’ve been doing some research on the topic and plan to offer some transformative and empowering activities to those who attend.