Countering Ageism: Are You Using Age-inclusive Language?

The simple truth is that if we live long enough, we all become older adults. We are each essentially an older person “in training.” Age is part of our social identity, and no one wishes to be diminished based on this characteristic. Countering ageism begins by understanding and adopting the age-inclusive language.

Key takeaways:
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    Ageism includes stereotypes, prejudice, or discrimination related to a person's age.
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    Using respectful and inclusive language as an aging population is necessary to counter ageism.
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    Terms matter in how people view themselves and relate to one another; inclusive terms are building blocks to better outcomes for older people.
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    Better approaches to conversations around age and aging begin with paying attention to how we think about it.

How we talk about aging matters

We are an aging population and how we portray getting older matters. Why? Because age is part of our social identity. Fears associated with growing old perpetuate negative images; once embedded, these stereotypes represent how we think about ourselves and others. It affects our interactions with one another and our community.

Prejudice involves how we feel about something and as we will discuss “being old” does not produce positive associations for many. Discrimination is behavior that separates people from one another and is a result of our stereotypes (thoughts) and prejudices (feelings).

Our view of aging is troubled

Despite a life expectancy of over 77 years, the perception in Western culture is that there are few advantages to getting older. People unconsciously use words and phrases that set people who’ve aged over 65 apart. This creates an unspoken category of “other.” Portraying aging as difficult and unattractive means no one wants to identify with it. Who can blame us when words like elder care and senior are associated with facilities and institutions?

Engaged by aging advocates eager for change and new conversations, The FrameWorks Institute sought to uncover the truth about people’s views on growing older. What they found is that our society’s ability to embrace later life, see its opportunities, and how older adults meaningfully contribute is hindered by misinformation and prejudice.

Problematic themes and identified beliefs include:

  • The “aged” are an outside group with separate problems. This is known as “othering”;
  • Dealing with older people is an individual or family problem. It is not a community issue;
  • Later life is synonymous with dependency and eventually becoming invisible as a person.

Countering ageism

Dr. Robert Butler, a psychiatrist, became an activist after witnessing systemic injustices toward aging people. He coined the term ageism around 1970. Ageism includes stereotypes about people in later life as well as prejudice and discrimination against older adults.

Being respectful and inclusive in our language is unifying and an excellent starting place. Recommendations exist for which terms to use when describing and discussing later life, as well as how to address the people who reach it. Presently the Reframing Aging Initiative is an excellent resource for anyone wanting more information on countering ageism.

Choosing our words

Do the words “old man” evoke a different feeling or image than “older man”? How about “addressing the elderly need for services," versus "securing services to benefit older community members”?

A host of experts including the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) joined forces to change how older adults are represented particularly in the medical literature. As mentioned above, research showed that the current language used to describe elders did not sit well with the public. Not only that but it obstructed needed updates in health policy as communication approaches failed to accurately depict the progress being made in both geriatric medicine and aging services.

After investigating the impact of specific words on public opinion and health outcomes, the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations sought to create and promote specific content guidelines.

To test your knowledge, which of the following terms are acceptable:

  • People in later life;
  • Senior citizen;
  • Older adult;
  • Older people;
  • Elderly;
  • Old;
  • Aged;
  • Silver tsunami;
  • Geriatric;
  • Senile.

If you selected 1, 3, and 4, then you are ahead of the class! According to the American Medical Association (AMA) Manual of Style, using the other terms above in health writing or research is not advised. Why?

“Such terms connote discrimination and certain negative stereotypes that may undercut research-based recommendations for better serving our needs as we age,” explained Manfred Gogol, MD in the Journal of The AGS.

Geriatric – still acceptable when describing a branch of medicine.

Tips for getting it right

What do the acceptable terms above (older people, people in later life, older adults) have in common? They use the words people, life, and adults. They aren’t nouns like “aged” that segregate them from other age cohorts. Remember that ageism can work in the other direction by “othering” younger generations using different labels.

When writing about a person or people, ask yourself if age is relevant to the story. For example, instead of saying, “Our favorite senior, Mr. Evans, retired at the ripe old age of 87,” try: “Mr. Evans is our longest-serving volunteer and will be dearly missed.”

Additional tips from the Gerontological Society of America:

Use unifying languageWe or us, instead of they and them;
Describe people aged 65 and older with relevant termsOlder adult, older persons, or older people;
Be specific about an age rangeAmerican women 75 years of age and older;
Put the person first when speaking about an individual’s conditionA person with a disability rather than a disabled person;
Avoid terms that suggest the helplessness of people with diseasesDiagnosed with arthritis, instead of suffering from arthritis;
Avoid fatalistic phrases that suggest aging is an impending disasterThe significant increase in the number of older adults rather than silver tsunami;

Whether as authors, health professionals, or community members, we can empower one another by taking responsibility for how we communicate about aging. This may require reflection on our attitudes and beliefs. Uniting different age groups is key; we do this by choosing affirming words and by making life changes non-threatening. We might even focus on the opportunities inherent in each life stage.


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