EVEN John Oliver Does It

“No Cute Old People”

That headline is the theme of a speech given a couple of years ago by Kirsten Jacobs, the education manager for LeadingAge, a highly respected association of more than 6,000 not-for-profit, member organizations in the United States that provide care and services for elders.

These are such places as hospice, assisted living, legal services, senior centers, meals programs, nursing homes, transportation, even Villages and more.

A critical purpose of all these agencies and organizations is to improve and expand services for elders so more of us can remain in our homes as we get older because there are not nearly enough residential care settings of all kinds now – nor will there be any time soon - to house our growing numbers.

What Kirsten was referring to with “no cute old people” is, of course, ageist language, something regular readers of this blog recognize as one of my signature rants.

As I have written here many times, we are bombarded from the cradle with negative stereotypes about old people and hardly anyone notices, let alone objects - even many old people.

But besides being rude and irritating, negative images and ageist language have serious consequences. Yale professor, Becca Levy, has found that one's personal perception of old age affects longevity more than even such factors as gender, loneliness, health and socio-economic status.

Having a positive perception of aging, Levy's studies show, can extend life expectancy by more than seven-and-a-half years. (Read more about that here.)

However, that is background and I digress. I'm really here today to tell you about spending a couple of hours with Kirsten Jacobs last week discussing all these issues and more.

It was such a pleasure being with a like-minded person as ardent as I am about language, especially one who spends her working life thinking about these issues as she develops educational materials and resources for the members of LeadingAge.

Maybe you could say elders are a family business. Kirsten lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, Jake Kirsch, who works with Network for Oregon Affordable Housing (NOAH). They are also the new-ish parents of an 11-month-old.

It always thrills me to meet young people who make elders their life work. We old folks need them in our lives.

Kirsten cares deeply about old people, she dislikes euphemism and ageist language as much as I do and she wants to change how our culture thinks about aging.

Here is that “No Cute Old People” speech she gave at the annual meeting of LeadingAge members in 2013. I'm pretty sure you're going to like her as much as do.


Nice speech by Kirsten. We need many more like her before we can eliminate the stereotypes. However, while we wait for that to happen, we can help ourselves. Every day, get up and say to yourself "I am smarter, more alert, more street smart. better read and oh, so less cute than the people assigned to take care of me." You will have a smile on your face all day.

Bruce: it worked - I put a smile on my face and intend to have it on ALL DAY!. ;-)

I was at a store recently, where the saleslady called me a "young lady." When I told her I was no longer a young lady, she responded that I was "so cute." I left it at that because to her I was just that "so cute" grandmotherly woman.

Bruce - I'm definitely more street smart than most young people I know. For the past few years I've traveled by car, by myself, several months out of the year. I meet a lot of people along the way, and the one thing I hear regularly, especially from much younger people, is that they want to be like me when they're old(er). To me, I'm just a fabulous 70-year old who's still healthy, active, and enjoying every day of her life.

When I checked my email this morning, I was stunned to see that this post with the "No Cute Old People"' title had ended up as Spam. That may be a first for a TGB post.

I too hate patronizing, condescending greeting, such as "Young Lady" or the assumption that I must be unfamiliar with computers, based on my white hair.

The speech by Kirsten Jacobs was masterful--well-written, well-delivered, and with a powerful message.

Kirsten as a great advocate for elders. So refreshing to find a young woman who cares.

Great post, great comments. I actually started dyeing my hair again because I've found that fewer people call me "dear" and "sweetie", fewer people speak slowly and/or loudly to me (my hearing is as good as it was in my 20s, though I'm 78) when I don't have gray hair. Now, the hair color doesn't make people think I'm 50, but I do think--sigh--it makes a difference. As Ronni points out, it is important to be taken seriously in serious situations. I had a "young lady" scene take place within the last month, and at my HMO, where the receptionist should've known better. I too said to her that I was not a young lady, and didn't think there was anything wrong with not being young. She backed off, of course, but I very much doubt she got the point. She may have thought I was just being the dark side of "cute." Aaack!

What Bruce said!

Anyone calling me "dear" should brace their butts for a smart comeback.

No finish line!

Indeed, Kate, people almost never understand our objections to being called "young lady" or "cute." If their minds are changed at all, it's in the direction of thinking "well, what a crabby old bitch--she should be grateful to be called young."

I have heard even worse, we have an ER show in Canada that is obviously staged as they pretend to care about the patients. They referred to the 99 year old as a "feisty gal". We also had a terrible fire in a retirement home in Quebec that killed most of the residents, I watched the sales video for their home, so before the seniors were killed by incompetence. The staff referred to them as "my sweet little angels". So sorry when I become a feisty gal or a pre-angel, it's time to check out!!

Back when microcomputers first came out, whenever I went into a computer store I'd have to spend the first few minutes dispelling the (always young, always male) clerk's patronizing notion that as a female I couldn't possibly know anything about computers. I'd do this by loosing a barrage of buzzwords. Since at that time I was running a computer newspaper, reading all the faxed press releases each day from all the burgeoning new technology companies, I was pretty much guaranteed to be able to out-tech even the nerdiest of computer store geeks. Once I'd established that, he'd mentally reclassify me and we could have a meaningful conversation.

Fast forward to today. I'm 71, silverhaired, and I suppose I look frail even though I'm not. I'm volunteering in a political campaign office. The job that needs doing is data entry from the canvassing sheets. The "data guy' is very nice, very polite, very friendly, doesn't have even a scrap of annoying preconceptions about females... but... age? Hmm. I suppose it didn't help that as he was explaining the system to me I was asking a lot of questions. I know that I don't listen as well as I used to. I was being careful because I wanted to do it right.

Well, I'll just have to show him, won't I? Ha! Kate gives me an idea. Maybe I should colour my hair!

Great post. It is great to be older and wiser. Stereotypes hurt everyone. Context is everything. Elders are respected in many cultures. and it would be wonderful if our contributions could be appreciated and respected. Becoming and elder is inevitable, so make the best of it and don't let anyone cramp your style.
Thanks for this interesting post.

I cannot understand the vw commercials with 3 sisters a set of twins well into their late 70's acting like yahoos over the young salesman..I am 67 and really who acts like that not in the world I know!!!!!!!! I am sick of people acting like well into their lives human beings are batcrapcrazy over men, sex or anything and then presenting it to sell a VW car! Really? I cannot get service in most places and I then go into COMMANDO mode loud and clear I make it known my money is not appreciated in their business that gets their attention. But to go around and fawn after a young man I would never do that I don't care if former President Clinton was walking around in his shorts or whatever...I get jacked up how people treat me when I walk with a 90 year old lady I barely can keep up with walking each early morning talking and walking, people say things to her and myself like we cannot hear or understand anything REALLY? WHAT THE LIVING HELL, we pay for everything now and we pay and why can't people realize we are human beings alive and happy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I just had a heck of a "conversation" with a few people who loved an airline safety commercial that, most originally and creatively, uses old people as the presumptive source of humor for "old school" safety tips. Of course, most people my age and younger who fire out the cliches of old people being "cute" and "adorable" rail against me for being uptight (and more profane characterizations). They dimly fail to realize that someday they will be walking the street, struggling to be see or heard as competent individuals and veterans of this planet as the "youth culture" gradually dismisses and discards them. Which will be harder to do as the mature population grows, of course ...

I never had any hangup about getting old. This article has reinforced my beliefs.

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