Mind your language when discussing age

Margaret Jennings says the words we use to describe older people often focusses on their frailty, yet most over-65s live independent lives
Mind your language when discussing age

WHEN is the last time that you laughed and said ‘oh, senior moment!’ when you had a lapse in memory? And what were you feeling at the time?

Now stop and think about how you feel when you are bunched into a group called ‘the elderly’ or are called an ‘old age pensioner’, although you might feel years’ younger inside?

The power of language and its association with stereotypes can seriously affect our own perception of who we are and how society reinforces those views.

We ourselves can be unthinkingly guilty — such as in the so-called humorous reference to memory loss, which programmes us to expect and accept minor memory lapses as unique to older people.

However, when society ascribes adjectives such as infirm, or frail to “the elderly”, do you sit up and take more notice of how you are being depicted, not only negatively, but also as part of one homogeneous group, just because you are over a certain age?

It’s time for everyone to question that language and take responsibility ourselves also, says Mo Flynn, president of the Irish Gerontological Society.

She put that challenge to social and health researchers when addressing her own society members recently, saying out it’s more advisable to use terms such as ‘older people’ rather than ‘the elderly’ or ‘the aged’.

“This type of language in many ways diminishes people and gives the whole sense of this homogeneous group that really doesn’t reflect who older people are and their individual and collective contributions,” she tells Feelgood.

The descriptive words we hear and read everywhere reflect this: “It can all be miserable, and rather than talking about us having so many active and healthy older people, it’s all about negativity; the ‘pensions time bomb’, the ‘tsunami’ of old people.

“There is much talk about the challenges of people getting older, rather than addressing things to celebrate. It’s all about long-term care, for instance, yet it’s only such a small proportion of the population over 65 who need long-term care,” says Flynn. “Everything is in that miserable context, as opposed to the positive contributions people are making.”

People shouldn’t be categorised into one group but recognised as individuals, she says.

The impact of what sociologists call ‘stereotype threat’ — that is, how we respond and behave according to how we are categorised, has been well researched regarding older people.

Many studies show how negative stereotyping around ageing can have a knock-on effect on the physical and mental health of those getting older.

“Ageing is a highly individualised and complex process, yet it continues to be stereotyped, especially in Western cultures,” says researcher Rylee Dionigi. “Stereotypes about a particular group play a powerful role in shaping how we think about and interact with individuals, as well as how individuals within the stereotyped group see themselves.”

Dionigi, who is a senior lecturer and associate head of the School of Human Movement Studies at Charles Sturt University in Australia, published a study in 2015 called Stereotypes of Ageing: Their Effects on the Health of Older Adults.

It showed stereotypes around growing older influenced not only how older adults are treated by others and society as a whole, but how older adults see themselves and how they view their peers. This influences their cognitive and physical performances as well as their ability to recover from disease and their health behaviours, including their decisions to engage in cognitive, social, and physical activity.

All of this had the potential to affect the holistic health — that is mental, physical, social, and emotional wellbeing of an older person and ultimately the length and quality of their life.

“Stereotypes are unchallenged myths or overstated beliefs which are widespread and entrenched in verbal, written, and visual contexts within society,” says Dionigi.

In her experience as a gerontologist and on a personal level also, Mo Flynn says the vast majority of older people don’t want to be categorised in this way.

That’s why verbal and written language has such an important role: “It’s the expectations that are created when we talk about all these frail old people. Any of us if we have a certain stereotype attributed to us are more likely to act that way just as much as if we are seen in a positive light, we also respond to that.

“What happens is we don’t call people elderly we call them ‘the elderly’,” she says. “And most people don’t want to be defined as ‘pensioners’. I don’t want to be defined by my age — I want to be defined by who I am.

“It’s very important that older people challenge that language because it won’t change unless they say it’s not acceptable.”

We all need to step up to the plate.

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