Ageism: TheBoldAge explores how language can be ageist

Be the change, and consider the words we use to combat and drive out ageism.

Published by Nigel Pritchard on Nov 27, 2020

Researching for this article I looked at what the Collins dictionary said about ageing and I was alarmed at what I read. Suffice it to say, I might as well end it all right now if that’s what ageing is all about. Forget any hope of me enjoying a positive 2nd half of my life. Which by the way gives you an insight into one of my life goals, I want to live an active life, well into my 100s.

Back on point, the synonyms for ageing included, declining, degenerating, senility, decay, in decline – do I need to go on. Given I am a ying and yang kind of guy I did try and ‘tot’ up the positives. Well, all I can say I needn’t have bothered. the best they could come up with was, maturing and mellowing. Now given I’ve been grumpy ‘sod’ most of my life at least my wife gets something out of the coming years.

But why did they not include: growing, developing, becoming wiser, learning, experiential; there are so many more tags that can portray the positives in becoming older.

For me, this highlights the unhealthy narratives around the concept of ageing. A period in our life that we should all be looking forward to especially given that we are all heading there, naturally and at the same pace as each other – one day at a time.

As a committed Boldie, I was told the other day I was ‘fit for my age’. Now anybody that knows me, knows this was bound to start ‘smoke billowing from my nostrils’. Yes, I am relatively fit, full stop. Whilst the person making the observation meant well, it was a good example of the clumsy, unthinking language that codifies society’s prejudices, stereotypes and discriminatory behaviours towards older age. This brainwashing starts from an early age. How many times have you sent a birthday card that joked about age; or have heard the phrases ‘you look great for your age’, ‘you can’t teach old dog new tricks’, ‘washed-up’, ‘over the hill’

And it’s not just well-known adages, institutional statements are also having a negative impact. For instance, ‘stay at home and protect your grandmother’ shapes the attitudes and behaviours of the very young to those in their 30s or 40s towards us Boldies, portraying us as one group that are needy, fragile and vulnerable. Stop the press, but there are many, many fragile and vulnerable people across all generations, and a high proportion of us Boldies are and would cope much better than those a lot younger.

So much of the language in today’s pandemic world is about intergenerational ‘us vs them’ and the old being blamed for the need for everyone else to socially distance which only goes on to amplify ageist attitudes and stereotypes.

The Centre For Ageing Better commissioned a report entitled ‘Doddery But Dear?’ In it they cast the media as a key driver of negative attitudes going onto say that the language that is being used misrepresents ageing as a crisis or somehow society’s baggage. Common descriptions include “demographic cliff” and “demographic timebomb”.

We can’t just blame the younger amongst us for this. We too are guilty of reinforcing the brainwashing by perpetuating the negative language and by accepting how people talk about us, or to us.

Why is it important, you may ask? Just take it as it was meant, I hear. Well I make no apology, I don’t. The reason being that there is now significant evidence that the use of discriminatory language impacts physical and mental health, including the onset of dementia, and ultimately on the quality of life and reduces life expectancy.

In a recent report, commissioned by Sun Life called ‘Ageist Britain’ researchers looked amongst other things at social media posts over a seven day period and found 2,400 ageist terms, including “old fart”, “old hag”, “bitter old man/woman”, “little old lady/man” and so they kept on rolling. Carol Vorderman who worked with Sun Life said Ageism is one of the last “taboos to smash through”. “Society has changed, and this kind of ageism, is something from the last century, not this one.”
Stereotyping language and portraying older people as one homogenous group is just lazy and downright wrong.

And don’t ‘wind me up’ up about marketeers use of ageist language like anti-ageing. For goodness sake , wake-up, its reinforcing that there is something negative about ageing. Again, it’s lazy labelling.

Sure, there are older people living with seriously challenging conditions and situations be that housing, mental health, loneliness or disability, but this is true of all ages. The majority of Boldies are living long, fulfilling, and active lives. Some are living extraordinary lives and achieving things that people decades younger would be unable to achieve from starting businesses, running ultramarathons, getting PhDs, becoming authors and so much more.

It’s important to realise that by perpetuating ageist language we unwittingly reinforce a view that somehow less is expected from older people, a kind of double standard. Given this has been imbued in us all from an early age, and followed us throughout our lives, it develops an expectation of how we should behave as we reach a certain age, affecting us in far-reaching ways. Thinking less, leads to expecting less, leads to doing less. Just think of the saying “slowing down” or “moving out of the fast lane”. Well I for one have no intention of doing either.

Psychologists, Michela Menegatti and Monica Rubini, from the University of Bologna, said: “Language is one of the most powerful means through which sexism and gender discrimination are perpetrated and reproduced.” So the parallels are real.

Activism and the calling out of poor language and labels have gone a long way to adjusting racist and other discriminatory behaviours across society as a whole and we need to do the same for ageism. There is nothing more powerful than Boldies being positive and ‘railing’ against the language and weight of decades of in-built expectation. We should not be blaming our memory loss on age, we all forget where we left our keys and as I said in my last article even a car, in my case.

At the end of the day labels are for boxes, jars and tins, not people.

I for one will be writing to Collins Dictionary to get them to update their synonyms, I’ve got over 50 years of positive ageing to come.