The Language of Ageism

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Combatting AgeismMaybe I am getting sensitive or maybe just simply grumpier as I get older, but I find that I am reacting intensely to the language of ageism. Maybe it is more prevalent now than it used to be or perhaps I am just noticing it more, but it is definitely out there – a lot. The language of ageism comes in different forms and from different places. It can be subtle or blatant. Sometimes speakers of ageist talk don’t even realize they are using it. I’ll give you a few examples.

Recently, I was giving a talk about getting older and a woman in the audience raised her hand and said that things were changing with the Boomers who “aren’t sitting around in housecoats any more like old people used to. They are doing interesting things.” I didn’t want to call her on this comment in front of everyone, but her words rankled me. First of all, I am an older person, older than a Boomer, and I have never sat around in a housecoat doing nothing. I worked (and still work) for a living, am active in the community, do aerobics, and take care of family members – young and old. Second, my mother who died more than 10 years ago at age 95 never hung out in a housecoat (neither did her contemporaries). She worked, had great networks of friends and relatives, was the go-to person in the family, and only stopped working in her early 70s because my dad’s health was beginning to fail. Third, the only person who I remember wearing a housecoat for any extended period of time was my mother-in-law who stayed a few winter months in Florida after spending a lifetime working in the family store. She deserved her housecoat.

The “housecoat” example came from one individual and I don’t really know how many people share this view, but the language of ageism can even come from prestigious sources that should know better. In the September 2014 edition of the AARP Bulletin, the article “Grandma Gets a Reboot: How boomer women are redefining the role” described how today’s grandmothers were defying the traditional old-lady image of wrinkles, rocking chairs, canasta, and blue-tinted rinse, and who now wear jeans. What I find disconcerting about this article is that it relies on outdated stereotypes to make its point. It also purports that it is Boomers who are making these changes. All the grandmothers I know and who are a lot older than these women are involved with their grandchildren in creative ways. And many of them even wear jeans.

Another wide-spread form of ageist language comes with the endless debates about whether to use the term “senior” or “elder”, or any other term that designates an older person. City governments, senior centers, and even individuals struggle with this. Some “senior centers” don’t include “senior” in the name of their building fearful that the horrific word will drive people away. Often individuals don’t want to admit they are “seniors.” The recently published “Living and Aging in Newton” assessment by U. Mass Boston, and sponsored by the Department of Senior Services, the Council on Aging, and the Senior Citizens Fund of Newton, found that many people didn’t identify themselves as “seniors.” I will admit that there was a time that I didn’t want to say I was a senior either. But then I realized that not using the term “senior” didn’t stop the fact that I was getting older. Trying to eliminate the term “senior” from our everyday language is a subtle, veiled form of ageism and a regrettable denial of aging. Do we really think that if we don’t use the word then all issues disappear? Wrong! Let’s face it. We have only a few words that mean “older person.” The goal shouldn’t be to ban those words from our vocabulary but to help people to accept and be proud of being a member of an esteemed group. Unless we respect ourselves as valued “seniors” others won’t value us either. It gives us and them an easy out for not thinking about and planning for reality.

There are a number of implications in these examples. One is that somehow the people who are the pre-Boomers (actually the Silent Generation) don’t have any knowledge and experience that could be helpful to younger “seniors.” Part of that phenomenon is our fault. We are too silent. Another is that stereotypes abound and we often don’t do a reality check on their validity. Does not wearing jeans really define the characteristics of someone who is older? Of course not. Finally, I think it is time to stop the debate about whether or not to use the term “senior.” Denying that we are “seniors” by not using the word is naïve bordering on irresponsible. We are seniors, for heaven’s sake. Let’s admit it and get on with the real work of planning for the future for ourselves and for our community.

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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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