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Lost in Translation

The language of ageism is complex.

For those working with older people, it is likely that the most obvious manifestation of an ageist point of view is through language. 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 The term is just plain out-of-date.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? Or cartoon characters such as Abe and Mona, Homer Simpson's parents?
  • Older people are just as diverse as younger people. They look stylish and dowdy, are jet-setters 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?