If you were asked to describe what makes you see someone as young or old, you probably have some clear ideas in your mind. Younger people are often viewed as rash and inexperienced, while older people are viewed as incompetent and in need of help. The judgements that we make about people because of their age is called ageism.
While adults of all ages experience ageism, this blog will focus on the ageism that older adults experience. Many stereotypes about older people are negative, emphasizing decline and dependency. The reason that stereotyping is a problem is because it does not show the diversity of older people.
Ageism is rooted in misunderstandings about what the aging process is and what it is not. Disease-based processes are often seen as a normal part of aging. They are not. Diseases develop for a variety of reasons (nutrition, genetics, physical activity, socioeconomic status, etc.). Age-related changes (e.g., decline in reaction time) do not necessarily lead to developing diseases.
Ageism is difficult to overcome. Ageist stereotypes are deeply ingrained into the thinking of the average person. You may be wondering how you can help address ageism. A great way to start is to adjust your communication about aging and older adults. There are a few strategies you can use to communicate about aging in a more constructive way.
First, avoid ‘othering’ older adults. Othering refers to the practice of using they or them to talk about older adults or topics relevant to aging. It frames aging as something that is happening to someone else when, in fact, all adults are aging. Instead, the recommendation is to use inclusive language such as us or we. For example, as we get older, we need to think about our goals and priorities for retirement.
The next communication tip is labeling. Words like ‘the elderly’ or ‘senior citizens’ are terms that are often used as the word for adults aged 65 and older. While you may encounter adults who prefer to be called these terms, research indicates that these terms are associated with incompetence and other ageist stereotypes. The recommendation is to use older adult or older person. You can older use the term older with modify other words (e.g., older volunteer or older participant). A comment about the term elder: it may have special meaning among some cultural groups. It may be wise to ask if ‘elder’ is the preferred term.
The final tip is to avoid crisis language to talk about how communities will be affected by the increase in the number of older adults. Writers try to use descriptive language to help engage readers. An example of crisis language is silver tsunami. Instead of inspiring people to take action, it has the opposite effect, making readers feel powerless to change anything.
This blog provided three communication strategies you can use to help overcome ageism. It takes practice to remember these tips, but I think you will see how they enhance your education and outreach efforts about aging and older adults.
Finding the Frame: An Empirical Approach to Reframing Aging and Ageism https://www.frameworksinstitute.org/publication/finding-the-frame-an-empirical-approach-to-reframing-aging-and-ageism/
Quick Tips to Start Reframing Aging: https://www.reframingaging.org/Portals/GSA-RA/QuickStartGuide.pdf?ver=_QHG8_uKL6HNr0mIEffDZg%3d%3d
Frame of Mind Video Series: https://www.youtube.com/@ReframingAging
Leacey Brown, South Dakota State University