It might have been said with the best of intentions but, if you find yourself in the firing line of a potential tongue-lashing, the compliment may have missed the mark.
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-based marketing director for a retirement community seeking feedback 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
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.
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.