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Watch Your (Ageist) Language

category_bug_ageism.gif Reports here of news, entertainment and advertising bias against elders have fallen off in the past year or so. Ageist depiction of and references to old people are so widespread that I could publish an entire blog with daily links to them. That is not to say there aren't some improvements here and there, but they stand out for their singularity more than any rush toward change.

Now, however, The International Longevity Center – USA, together with Aging Services of California, have published a media style guide that should sit next to the general style guides in every media company.

Language matters. When we are repeatedly assailed with negative, prejudicial words and images, we come to believe in what they stand for. When we change the language, beliefs begin to change. Media Takes: On Aging is primarily concerned with the language of aging with a brief review of current usage followed by authoritative suggestions for change.

Probably the most commonly misused word is elderly, found in newspapers and on television every day to describe anyone with gray hair. Here is Media Takes advice:

“Use this word carefully and sparingly. The term is appropriate only in generic phrases that do not refer to specific individuals: concern for the elderly, home for the elderly, etc. In other words, describing a person as elderly is bad form, although the generalized category 'elderly' might not be offensive.

"If the intent is to show that an individual's faculties have deteriorated, the Associated Press Stylebook recommendations citing a graphic example and attributing it to someone.”

In other words, “elderly” is not, as it is mostly used, a synonym for old.

The book also cites Washington Post columnist Abigail Trafford on a word, senior, that Time Goes By tries to avoid for precisely Ms. Trafford's reasons:

“...the word senior 'has probably had its moment. The word is laden with stereotypes. It conjures up dentures and discounts, decline and dysfunction.'”

Although the authors do not mention the word “still” - as in “At 80, she still cooks her own meals,” it is implicit in this recommendation:

“Don't ascribe a routine behavior to an older individual, suggesting it is a deviation from the norm. Older adults are active, sexual, etc., like people of any other age.”

In the preface to Media Takes: On Aging, Robert N. Butler, who is the president and CEO of the International Longevity Center – USA, who coined the term “ageism” in the 1960s and who was interviewed for Time Goes By last year, writes that because we live so much longer than any previous generations of humankind, it is required now that we change obsolete mindsets and beliefs about growing old:

“The social construct of old age, even the inner life and the activities of older persons, is now subject to review and revision. The very words we use to describe people are undergoing greater scrutiny.

“It is ironic, then, that at the same time Americans are beginning to see an unfolding of an entire life cycle for a majority, we continue to have embedded in our culture a fear of growing old, manifest by negative stereotypes and language that belittles the very nature of growing old, its complexities and tremendous variability.”

The International Longevity Center and Aging Services of California have sent free copies of the style guide to more than 10,000 journalists, film and television producers and other media professionals, and another 2,500 university chairs for marketing, communications and the performing arts. You can download a free copy at the ILCUSA website [pdf] and the Aging Services of California website [pdf].

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Chester Baldwin reports his experience with A Real Cost of Freedom of Choice.]


Ronni, I get where you are coming from, but I have to say I don't mind the word "senior", especially if it comes with a discount. At my age, I AM a senior in this life, having lived close to the end of my 6th decade. That I am neither infirm nor in decline is beside the point.

I understand that when some people use the word, there is a distasteful connotation to it. I pay no attention to them. LOL

Thanks for the links to the .pdf files. I'm a board member with the Glenn County Senior Centers and I will pass this material out at our next board meeting. I'm not sure how it will be received, as I already know that some members are quite comfortable with the 'senior' word. But it will make them think! Always a good thing...

In U.K. "older people" is much used, as in homes for older people. Here in Spain, we can be mayores (elders, seniors, majors), jubilados (retired people) or pensionistos (pensioners).

I don't mind how anyone refers to me though "jubilada" has a nice ring to it, reminding me of jubilant.

Cheers! I recently encountered another phrase: "perhaps not surprisingly," in reference to older people. I can't remember if it was about us being set in our ways or unable to walk or whatever, but its message was that, when you get older, "it's not surprising" that you can't do fill-in-the-blank. It's insidious and deadly because it can become so self-fulfilling.

While we're at it--what about the advertising?! I don't mind that I get targeted for anti-wrinkle cream and various health care devices as much as I mind how *bad* the ads are: boring and uninventive.

Using the word "senior" to describe someone in my age bracket is fine with me. I rather like the term. To me it connotes seniority, perquisites, longevity, maybe even wisdom.

Regarding "elderly," I wonder how I should describe my 90-year old mother, if I were not to use that word. Saying, "my 90-year old mother" is unnecessarily harder than saying "my elderly mother." Should I refer to her as "my very old mother?" "My old mother?"

To me, the word elderly means something fairly specific--someone who is quite old and I think most users of the word share that view, although I do not find support from the online dictionaries I have just checked. They define the word as being past middle age.

Modern dictionaries are ususally decriptive, not prescriptive in their definitions. I believe in this case the definitions have not kept up with current usage.

I honestly don't see much difference connotatively between using elderly or very old to describe someone who is indeed quite old. I think it is useful to have a different word for those old, but not extremely old. Using senior and elderly seem to me to be very clear.

I do not like elderly nor senior, preferring older. But Pamela's "jubilada," for retired woman, reminds me that I am so happy to be retired, I want to do cartwheels. I vote for that one.

With respect to stereotypes: While reading with my granddaughter some years back, she remarked about the woman in the story as being very old. I looked at the picture and there was a fit and attractive woman gardening. "Oh, why is she very old?" I asked. She just pointed her finger to the gray hair, you know, like mine.

So glad that we now have a "style guide" to help speed up the needed changes.

If you saw Oprah with Dr. Oz yesterday then my 68 years would be defined as close to middle age if the regenerative scientists continue to build body parts. The claim is that we will be living to 120-150 years once the science is fully utilized. Imagine growing a new liver from your own body cells. Right now they are growing kidneys and hearts for those patients who are waiting for them. Ain't science grand?

I cheerfully admit to being a senior hoping to become elderly, since there don't seem to be any better words, but goodness--have no wish to live forever cobbled together out of spare body parts like some weird, cost-prohibitive Frankenstein's monster.

You can call me what you like...just call me. If I am here I shall the way Ronni - I just watched the movie the Boy in the Stripped Pajamas. It was "wonderful" if a Holocaust movie can be termed that. Just an aside...hope you are well - sorry haven't commented lately, been in an "old age" funk. Oh well!!!

The subject of ageism reminds me of the sexism so rampant in the 60s when I was a young woman. There was such a mindset about femininity that I didn't even recognize how it was used against me - until long after the fact. Many of us look back now and not only see how it was but how we allowed it in a way. Guess it depends on who's talking--an example is the African or black American who use the "n" word to refer to themselves and friends but take exception to other groups doing it. I still catch myself, for example, using outdated words, like "geezer" (when referring to myself of course) and it feels okay when I say it but not when some young stranger utters it. I'll try to be more conscious of language about everything in the future, period, end of sentence.

Good subject & lots of pleasant replies....

Our local art gallery in Del Norte County (California) is a non-profit hangout for many of the older retired artists...In quest for a shorter title when answering the phone...I suggested "Geezer Gallery"... It remanins to be seen...Stop by the Harbor Gallery when in Crescent City

My pet peeve is applying words like "spry" and "sharp" to anyone over a certain age who isn't drooling in a wheelchair.

While we're at it, let's advise our peers to cut out the overly cutesy phrase, "I'm 71 years young." (Shudder) No, I'm 71 years old.

Glad to read such continued emphasis on aging language in so many more venues. Thanks for the PDF link. Appreciate your focusing on it, too. I'm on record as disliking the term senior, geezer and a few other such outdated terms.

. This writer is 70 years of age and is not down on her knees praying for a happy death!!. this writer is instead praying and actively seeking to put good quality, exciting, mind expanding, joy, type of life life in her years. Am i an 'Elder lemon'?, a 'Grey panther'? A 'Crone?, A cranky ould Biddy'? A 'Senior'? A 'Old timer'? A 'Over hiller'? A 'Has been'? OR simply ME?, A 70 yr old, facing the challenge and potential that all ages bring. Labels?. No. I pass on labels. I and only I will define WHAT i am, WHO i am, and WHERE i am. I am merely a travellor on this good earth, choosing not to label myself in any way. Let the world print their ageist labels, This writer smiles at them. Young/Old merely words.

Eilish Cullen, I couldn't agree with you more, but acquiesce to others using what I can accept as the lesser of evils. There are so many in society that seem to think they have to give us a group name. I've long resisted labels of any kind, not just those related to aging.

Hello Ronni, I found this article when I googled the word "ageism". Currently I am irritated with an arts organization that has named itself "Geezer Gallery". However, I see here on your blog you have changed a category previously labeled as "elder movies" to "geezer flicks". So, am I off-base with my irritation? I just read this article above and said "right on" and then read your sidebar "geezer flicks" and said; hmm, how is geezer not derogatory? I despise the word geezer, but perhaps I am missing something. I would love to know your thinking. I have a post about my concerns on my own blog. Perhaps you will have a look. Thanks.

Hi Celeste...

I'm about finished settling into my new home and just now catching up
with some email that I deliberately ignored until I had most of my
stuff sorted and stored.

Re Geezer Flicks: generally, I don't like the word and would never use
it pejoratively. But sometimes we can make fun of ourselves and "geezer
flicks" came up during a discussion with another TGB reader and it made
me laugh. It's okay, heh, heh, if old people use the word, we decided.
You're not the first one to wonder, but it makes me giggle so I leave

My best,

Phone: 212.242.0184

I don't think causing folks to chuckle is altogether bad.

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