Successful Aging: What you say matters when talking about older people


Q. I have a pet peeve with many reporters and journalists who use the term “75-year-old grandma (or grandpa) was blah, blah,blah.” I am a great-grandmother, a working accountant, a homemaker, a wife, a board member and so on. If I were to describe myself, I would say I am an 81-year old woman. Thanks for listening. A.A.

Dear A.A.

Words matter. How we refer to age and older people conveys an attitude, perception and sometimes even a stereotype.

In a report, “Words to Age by: A Brief Glossary on Tips and Usage,” Paul Kleyman, journalist with the former New America Media, surveyed 100 journalists about language used in covering issues about aging. The goal was to help journalists represent older adults with neutral language respecting their individuality without presumptuous labels.

Here are a few principles of that report:

Preferred terms: The term “boomer” is widely accepted while some journalists were troubled by its overuse. “Elders” emerged as a preferred term referring to those in later life, acknowledging that it had a respectful and a positive connotation. “Mid-life” was another preferred term that was more inclusive than boomers, usually including those between 40 and 60 years, although boomers are extending mid-life well into the 60s. And then there is the term “seniors,” which was widely accepted as a description of older people with a warning: boomers may object.

Most disliked terms: Journalists did not like the use of the term “baby” with “baby boomers.” Note: Boomers have not been babies for decades. “Elderly” should be used only as a modifier to describe older adults who are older and frail. Journalists agreed to avoid using the term “senior citizen,” which initially was used in a Time magazine piece in 1938.

A personal perspective: Older adults vary in their preferred use of terms to describe age. Those in their 80s and 90s often have no problem being referred to as a “senior,” while those younger may find the term inappropriate. Note we have senior discounts, senior centers, senior living and senior lecturers, which seem to attract the intended audiences. I prefer to use neutral terms such as “older adults,” “older persons,” those in “later life” or even a “new life stage.”

Here are some additional tips from journalists according to the report:

Avoid patronizing words. These words are “feisty,” “spry,” “sweet,” “eccentric,” “feeble,” “senile” and “grandmotherly.”

Caution in using “active.” Avoid the gee-whiz tone in describing an older adult as active. It implies that this particular older individual is an exception, suggesting that in general older people are sedentary.

Mentioning a person’s age. Don’t mention age unless it is germane. A news story about an 84-year old truck driver who hit two cars should cite facts that his or her age was relevant to the accident.

Mentioning relationships. Only mention it when relevant. An example of an inappropriate use of reference to a relationship is “Golda Meir, a doughty grandmother, told the Egyptians…”

Beware of political spin. This applies to public policy aspects of a news story. For example, the use of the term “burden” can be misleading. We may read about the “burden” of Social Security or the “burden” of our aging society that implies the ills of America are primarily caused by our aging population.

Avoid the naïve source of wonder. This is my favorite in both news stories and general conversation. Operative words are “still” or “remain.” Here’s an example. “At 76, Smith remains active as a teacher…gardener…or hang glider, which assumes one typically is inactive at age 76.”

On a personal note here are some questions frequently asked of me. “Are you still working?” “Do you still work out with the fitness coach?” The answer is “yes” and “yes” with appreciation for the interest and gratitude for the opportunity, knowing that many don’t have the option. The word “continue” is a good substitute for “still.”

People’s responses to age-related language can depend on their chronological age, generation, cultural community and personal preference. Avoiding preconceived notions and remaining neutral is important not only for journalists, but for each of us in our everyday lives.

John Keating, an English teacher whose life was portrayed in the movie “Dead Poet Society” is quoted as saying to his students, “No matter what anybody tells you, words (and ideas) can change the world.”

Thank you, A.A. for reminding us of the importance of language.

© Helen Dennis.  All Rights Reserved.