Let’s change our language to reflect the Older Americans Month 2021 theme of Communities of Strength.
At Kavod Senior Life, we’re excited to be part of the movement to help end ageism in our community and our nation. This month is a great time to promote inclusivity among people of every age, background and ability. We are reprinting these tips from Changing the Narrative as a way to remind ourselves and others on how to start making a shift.
Here are just a few words and phrases it’s time to discard, if you haven’t already:
Senior, senior citizen, elderly
Now, this one’s tough for us because “Senior” is part of our name, and was chosen in 2014 as an official distinction used in the affordable housing industry. However, in most other instances, we avoid it. In 2020, the Associated Press announced changes in its Stylebook, recommending that “older adult” or “older person” be used instead of senior, senior citizen, and elderly, and also suggesting the use of descriptive language, e.g., “our programs serve people age 60 and over.” Why? Because research by FrameWorks Institute shows that these terms are often associated with, and reinforce, negative stereotypes about older people.
Silver tsunami, grey wave, going off a demographic cliff
Often used to describe our aging demographics, these phrases suggest that older people are a demographic disaster. In addition to casting older adults in a negative light as economic burdens, the metaphors aren’t accurate. We have known about the aging of America and the world for some time. We know how older adults contribute significantly to our communities and the workplace. What we need to do is come together to develop innovative, age-friendly programs, policies and communities in which people of all ages can thrive.
Still, in front of a verb, applied to an older adult
As in “still” working, still doing [whatever it is]. No, I am not “still” working, which would suggest that maybe working at my age is an outlier. I am working, as are millions of older adults, because we want to, because we need to, and maybe a combination of both. Working brings purpose, passion, paycheck and social connection. Just drop the “still.”
“Weak, vulnerable”’ in front of any term describing an older American
Repeated ad nauseam by well-meaning elected and public health officials and almost everyone else during the pandemic, this term became associated with older people and cemented another stereotype that is contrary to communities of strength. People who need extra supports to thrive in community aren’t weak and vulnerable; systems that don’t provide those supports are what is weak and vulnerable. Let’s make a renewed commitment to strengthening our policies and systems, so those terms can be eliminated from our vocabulary altogether.
You look great for your age
Sometimes words meant to be complimentary, aren’t. This phrase suggests that as you age, you are supposed to look a certain way—not good. This video by AARP and SoulPancake explains why. A great alternative? “You look great!” Period. Full stop.
Young lady or young man
When used to describe someone older than 18, it’s diminishing. Other words in this category? Calling older people “sweetie”, “honey”. What may seem like a term of endearment infantilizes older people, and makes us seem less capable than we are. And research shows that experiencing everyday ageism has negative impacts on our health and wellbeing.
It’s time for those of us who are celebrating Older Americans Month 2021, and who recognize the contributions that older adults make to our communities, workplaces and overall society, match our words and messages with our commitments, and end ageist language. Together.
Thanks to Janine Vanderburg for this content and the important work she leads. Janine directs Changing the Narrative, a campaign to change the way people think, talk and act about aging and ageism. Our end game? To end ageism.