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05 Oct 2023

The new age of ageism


The new ‘ism’, joining sex and race, is age.

Ageism (also spelt "agism") is stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. This may be casual or systematic.

As an issue age discrimination in the workplace has the highest profile but in terms of damage, and impact, ageist language is possibly the most insidious.

In the 21st Century, language is loaded with meaning—intended or otherwise. There is no question that the language of ageing has become a ‘hot’ and sensitive topic with no signs of abating.

At least until some of the less desirable attitudes behind the words undergo change.

Bearing in mind that what was once viewed as ‘old’ might, in fact, be anything but.

Witness the experience of an Auckland, New Zealand-based marketing director for a retirement community seeking feedback from residents on what would, or wouldn’t, be acceptable in promotional literature.

This was one memorable reaction.

I will begin with the pet hates and that would be
1. The elderly
2. Elders

Probably, on reading a brochure, I would prefer Retirees or Over 65s.

Seniors is not a bad choice either.

I have no problem with Older People because that is what we are.

The reason (which may be of help to you) is that when looking at taking up residence I, personally, would have been immediately put off if I thought I was going to a place where there would be lots of infirmity and Zimmer frames. The terms ‘elderly and elders’ conjures up this sort of image.

I did receive a card some time back that referred to Grandmothers as Antique Little Girls*!!!!

I Liked that.


What’s in a name?

Part of caring about people, as much as caring for them, involves sensitivities and sensibilities.

Getting the terminology right is an important aspect of communicating about…whatever you want to call that concept of moving forward in time.

Before his death in 2010, Robert Neil Butler was a physician, gerontologist, psychiatrist, and author as well as head of one of the world’s first age-related organisations known as the United States National Institute on Aging.

He coined the term in 1969 to describe discrimination against seniors, and patterned on sexism and racism. Ageism became an ‘ism’ and the issue gained life.

He wasn’t the first to draw attention to what observers throughout the ages have identified as a seemingly universal, widespread contempt for old people.

It was Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD) who pronounced: Senectus morbidus est. Old age is a disease.

A wide range of societies associated late life with disease and death justifying why older people shouldn’t receive access to care.

Stereotypes in literature, theatre, art and other creative endeavours have depicted older people in less than flattering ways.

Robert Butler’s enduring achievement was to give meaning to ageism as an affliction for those demonstrating such tendencies. Suddenly the tables were turned.

This formed the foundation of the themes he pursued in his efforts and writings articulated when he first introduced the subject.

Ageism can be seen as a systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin colour and gender . . . I see ageism manifested in a wide range of phenomena, on both individual and institutional levels—stereotypes and myths, outright disdain and dislike, simple subtle avoidance of contact, and discriminatory practices in housing, employment, and services of all kinds.

Fast forward several decades and the war against ageism shows no signs of abating.

Writer Debbie Reslock in a piece published in the Huffington Post entitled The Cruelty of Calling Older Adults ‘Sweety’ or ‘Honey’ laments that: when age is the defining feature, our personality, beliefs and individuality are replaced with stereotypes of incompetence, debilitation and dependency. Which leads to one of the most damaging of the discriminating behaviours of ageism — we start treating older adults like children.

Boomer Times

Having developed a penchant, and reputation, for being rebellious (and leading the charge against racism and sexism) there is no way that Baby Boomers are taking inappropriate language lying down. Particularly as they enter the realm of ‘getting older’.

In thinking about the correct terminology for the ‘new old age’, New York Times blog writer Judith Graham decided that she needed some help in gaining insights into the new terrain.

While there might be some cultural differences in how people deal with the issues, many of these sentiments would have universal application…including in New Zealand.

Recommendations published by the president of a generational target marketing organisation suggests eschewing any specific terminology. Rather focus on, and define them by, interests and values.

He says: For heavens’ sake, don’t call them anything. Let’s talk about their interests and values. Marketers make it a point to address potential customers’ stage of life and lifestyle, but never talk about their age.

Not to be daunted by this advice she sampled a ‘representative group’ just in case some sort of terminology might be required that wouldn’t produce offence. These were samples from people.  Their ages relate to how old they were at the time of questioning. 

  • A 67-year-old male administrator says: What’s going on is we have a problem with the subject itself. Everyone wants to live longer, but no one wants to be old. Personally, I tend to use the term “older people” because it’s the least problematic. Everyone is older than someone else. Much of the time, it’s completely unnecessary to use age as an identifier at all. People don’t like it.
  • A 74-year-old woman writer says: Don’t call anyone “elderly.” I associate that with people with physical disabilities who need constant care. “Senior citizens” is a term coined in the late 1930s for people who needed a place to go, senior centers, to have a good lunch. To me, it implies somewhat impoverished older people, not the way people want to think of themselves. “Aging” — to me that sounds like I’m declining. I guess “older people” is best.
  • A 67-year-old male doctor says: People who study this talk about the “young-old,” roughly age 65 to 75, and the “old-old,” a group that tends to have more physical needs and functional impairments. The problem with terms like “the elderly” or “seniors” is that they lump these two groups together, and none of the young-old want to be identified with the old-old. My view is that the elderly are a demographic group, like youth or middle age. I use it when I’m talking about populations. When I’m talking about individuals, then I say “older person.” Personally, I prefer the term “senior,” but the fact is no one calls me that because no one thinks I’m that old.
  • A 70-year-old woman academic says: How we discuss age depends on the context and the underlying ideology. Society mostly adheres to a decline ideology that equates getting older with getting worse, usually from a health, and often from a financial, standpoint.  Countering this is positive aging ideology that insists that many things get better with age. You’ve got a tug of war between these two views and over the direction of change that aging represents. I prefer descriptions that imply movement to those that are static. Phrases like “aging past youth” or “aging into the middle years” or “aging toward old age” — I’d like to see those mainstreamed.
  • A 62-year-old gerontologist says: We don’t call people “junior citizens,” so why do we call them “senior citizens”? “Elderly” is not generally accepted as a noun. To many of us, it’s associated with social services, health programs, long-term care. I prefer the words “older person” or “aging adult,” as do I. They’re neutral descriptions, neither positive or negative.

The most sentient advice is this. Rather than forego communication for the fear of offending, or being offended, relax and be your natural self, albeit with just a little more, or less, sensitivity.
Authenticity, in particular, is always appreciated.


Of Concern to the World.    

According to the World Health Organisation, ageism has serious and wide-ranging consequences for people's health and well-being. Among older people, ageism is associated with poorer physical and mental health, increased social isolation and loneliness, greater financial insecurity, decreased quality of life and premature death.

An estimated 6.3 million cases of depression globally are estimated to be attributable to ageism.  It intersects and exacerbates other forms of bias and disadvantage including those related to sex, race and disability leading to a negative impact on people’s health and well-being.

The person responsible for communicating the language bias may be unaware that they are engaging in a negative form of communication. As well, the person receiving the message may also be unaware of the bias being communicated. Most troubling, however, is that these language-based discriminatory patterns are normalised and potentially internalised. Most experts on ageing, however, agree that there are definitely some things you should not do when communicating about, or for, older people.

Public relations blogger Joanne Fritz has compiled a DON’T list that has relevance to those involved with older people


The Don’t List:

  • Don't call them "old," "elderly," or "senior citizens”. "The whole concept of who is "old" has become very slippery. Yes, to a young child, almost any adult is old, but to the rest of us, only people who are a whole lot older than ourselves are old. Use the word "older," never "old" -- as in "older people."
  • "Elderly" should only be used as a modifier, as in "elderly patients," and only when referring to those who are truly old and frail. Do not use it as a general term for all those in later life. This is considered stigmatising since not all older people are fragile.
  • Although "senior citizen" is frequently used in the media, it is best avoided. The term is just plain out-of-date. To most older people, being called a senior citizen is just a euphemism for "old" and "elderly" "Senior" is still acceptable to many older people, but don't use "senior" to describe anyone younger than 65. There is also evidence that boomers may dislike this term when applied to them. One prominent journalist said that this label "has probably had its moment. The word is laden with stereotypes. It conjures up dentures and discounts, decline and dysfunction."
  • Don't refer to them as crones, curmudgeons, geezers, or any version of "golden." Maybe these terms were once mildly amusing. They are not funny now. Avoid words and phrases that date people or communicate unnecessary connotations, such as "of a certain age." Even talking about the "golden years" is problematic, probably because it implies an ending as in the sunset or the colours of autumn and has been overused in referring to the retirement years.
  • Don't act astounded that older people can still walk and talk. We can hear the gee-whiz tone of the writer who says, "Tom is 78, yet is still active as a bungee-jumping instructor." Well, perhaps that is noteworthy, but an active gardener, teacher, runner, volunteer? In fact, just skip the word "active," since it suggests that it's unusual for an older person to be active. Do not mention age at all unless it is genuinely relevant, and most of the time it isn't.
  • Don't patronise or demean older people. Avoid terms such as feisty, spry, sweet, little, feeble, eccentric, senile, grandmotherly, and other similar words. Avoid cutesy phrases such as "He is 80 years young." Don't say "sweetie" when addressing an older woman.
  • Don't use older people as the butt of a joke. Many people, who no longer find ethnic jokes acceptable, seem indifferent to the effect of jokes about older people. Older people are often accused of being humourless when they object to such jokes.
  • Don't reinforce stereotypes of older people. What do you think of when you imagine an older woman or older man? Glamorous Sophia Loren and ageless Sean Connery?
  • Older people are just as diverse as younger people. They look stylish and dowdy, are jetsetters and bus riders, and they are no more often inflexible than younger people. Some are conservative, and some are, well, wild. They play tennis, do yoga, bowl, and are couch potatoes. An increasing number of older people work past retirement age, while others sail or play golf. Many are on Facebook, while others won't touch even a mobile phone.
  • Avoid lumping all older people into any category -- glamourous, active or frail. They're just people like everyone else and come in a fantastic assortment of looks, styles, and abilities.


Food for thought

  1. Have you, or your colleagues, had an experience of language being taken the wrong way? What was the offending terminology and what were the outcomes?
  2. Are there other examples of language, outside of ageism, that have created misunderstandings or tension for you?
  3. What would you do if you heard someone using ageist, or other inappropriate, language?
  4. How would you respond if one of your clients were to say something that was inappropriate or downright offensive?
  5. Do you think people are becoming overly sensitive and should always give people the benefit of the doubt?
  6. Is language use part of your training? If not, should it be?

In Short:  As caregivers, people working in the age care sector, or those with older family or friends, we are unwittingly guilty of ageism.  We all share one thing in common—it is a stage or state that we are all heading towards.  Ageism has become an issue in many areas such as employment, provision of services, and other situations.   No wonder that the language involved is complex and nuanced.  Whether intentional or not verbal indignity communicates hostility or insults.  Particularly for those working with older people it is likely that the most obvious manifestation of an ageist point of view flows from language. 

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Date Published: December 2018

Reviewed: September 2022

To be reviewed: September 2025