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?

Words matter

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.


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