Ageism is the last form of bigotry that can still be employed in polite company.
Watch Your (Ageist) Language
Posted: 25 Mar 2009 02:35 AM PDT
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 words 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.”
Jude and I agree that we will need to help people who do not mean harm to learn how to talk about age and aging in ways that do not demean those of us living in the second half of life.