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In Other Words: Finding New Terms for Old Age

Jeanette Leardi March 9, 2020
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Changing the words that relate to the process of getting older may help change people’s minds about it. 

As the current longevity economy regularly adjusts to an increasingly larger older population, there is a growing need to find words that more accurately describe those consumers’ experiences. Some traditional terms that once reflected what it means to be older are now demanding updating to reflect today’s post-midlifers and how they live.

The big issue is how to do this in the most effective way.

“In order to develop a more realistic and accurate vocabulary to describe this population we have to start by acknowledging that older age is in and of itself a developmental stage of life,” explains Dr. Tracey Gendron, chair and associate professor of the department of gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Presently, when have a variety of terms to describe different stages of life: infancy, childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood, and adulthood. But it stops there. That means that we are in one stage of development (adulthood) that can last 80 years!” 

The Acceptability Challenge

For some reason, finding the right age-based words stymies individuals, organizations, and businesses. Too often, what’s acceptable for one person is taboo for another. Take the elderly, for example. What used to be a common label for a group of people in late life has become offensive to many older adults for two reasons: 1) It conjures up the ageist image of a feeble, passive population, which they don’t feel they represent, and 2) It categorizes them as one homogenous cohort, when the reality is that as people age they become more diverse in their experiences, preferences, and skills. Many aging-services professionals—as well as the public—agree with the more neutral terms preferred by American Geriatrics Society: older adults or older people.

“Words come packed with meaning,” says Dr. Julie Sweetland, sociolinguist and senior advisor at the FrameWorks Institute, which has tackled public misperceptions about aging. “If we talk about battling old age, then it’s clear that aging is a bad thing. We say people are older but wiser—with the contrast of but implying that one is good and one is bad. The message that aging is bad is repeated and reinforced daily through subtle cues like these. So it’s no wonder that few Americans want to identify as ‘aging’—and in turn, no surprise that we don’t have a robust policy conversation about what we need to do to create communities that support us all as we age.”

Changing Words—and Minds

Ageism is sustained by the words people use. Will changing the vocabulary of age help to change minds about the value of people in their later years?

According to Gendron, “the fight to end ageism begins with an acknowledgement that there is more after adulthood—more growth, more opportunities, different roles, different milestones and different markers. To this end, we need a term that accounts for this and embraces the growth, maintenance, adaptation, and decline that we all experience as we age. I believe the term elderhood fits the bill.”

Substituting one term for another is one option; however, there may be a tendency to use euphemisms, which can defeat the purpose. Reclaiming and redefining currently negative terms may be a better solution.

“I think that simply changing the terms that we use is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound,” says Gendron. “For example, if we use the terms vintage, experienced, or mature to cover up the word old, we are ultimately still saying that being old is undesirable—so let’s give it another name to make it feel better. What would happen if instead we took words like old and elderly back and used them in such a way that conveyed desirability and value? Rather than avoiding these terms, we embrace them.” 

A Matter of Style

It’s not just words describing old people that need updating. Ageist vocabulary used by the medical, long-term-care, and other industries also needs to change. Some examples are found in an AARP #DisruptAging article “Who You Calling ‘Young Lady’?” by Amanda Duarte and Mike Albo, the California Assisted Living Association’s Elevate Aging Through Language, and an article by Karen Schoeneman, “Mayday”, written for the Pioneer Network. 

Keeping appropriate language current is a challenge in a culture of widespread social media, which, according to Gendron, “can both help and hinder the efforts to combat ageism,” but it’s not impossible.

Because print, television, and radio news organizations have huge social media presences and are major arbiters of linguistic style, Sweetland says “It’s a good rule of thumb to revisit a style guide at least every other year—and to pay special attention to the organizational policies on terms of reference.”  

Gendron offers other tips: “Given that age discrimination in the workplace is rampant, businesses should look at their marketing, advertising, policies and procedures for hidden (or not so hidden) ageist language and practices. Think about terms that might perpetuate age discrimination (e.g., digital native, recent graduate)… [B]usinesses and organizations should use caution and avoid phrases and words that ‘other’ people. It’s essential to remember that aging isn’t an ‘us vs. them’ proposition. We are all aging every day of our lives. It is just about us.” 

“People sometimes dismiss intentional efforts to change language as superficial or artificial,” adds Sweetland. “I think of the stories we tell about social issues and social groups as dress rehearsals for the policies our society will endorse. It matters that we get our lines right.”

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Jeanette Leardi

Jeanette Leardi is a social gerontologist, writer, editor, and community educator specializing in aging issues. Her passion for older adult empowerment has led her to anti-ageism activism. Find her work at www.jeanetteleardi.com.

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