5 Ageist Pitfalls

While shopping for a birthday card for my soon-to-be 60-year-old brother-in-law, I found myself becoming more and more infuriated as I read one card after another.  The bulk were loaded with ageist (and often sexist) references.

Like all other “-isms” (racism, sexism) ageism involves stereotyping.  Stereotypes are reinforced every day – in the community as well as in the work place, in the media, in healthcare, in print ads, in institutions, in music, and in print.

5 Ageist pitfalls to avoid:

  • Avoid words or phrases that may communicate certain visuals ie. “Old Geezer, Grumpy Old Man, Biddy, Hag.”
  • Don’t act shocked when told that older people can still walk or talk…..someone can be as active at 78, 88, 98 as they are at 38.  People bungee jump at 90 and are couch potatoes at 35.  So what?  Is it really relevant?
  •  Don’t use words or phrases such as cute, sweet, feisty, senile, adorable, or “90 years young.”   These are patronizing and demeaning.  When one uses older people as the butt of a joke, as in those birthday cards, it is no more acceptable than ethnic or stereotypical jokes are.
  • Don’t paint a picture with a broad brush.  Stereotypes reinforce the negative assumptions of what older people are capable of accomplishing.  We are witness to the diversity of older people as we are with younger people.  Many are stylish or frumpy, some are glamorous and ageless, active or frail, and there are those who are no less flexible than the young.  They work, sail, golf, play tennis, are politically conservative, or remain in the workplace.  They are as likely to be on Facebook as their grandchildren while others won’t even own a cell phone.
  • And finally – What is “old”? Think about it….  When we were children any adult seemed old.  Now, only people who are a lot older than us are old.  Use the word “older”….as in “older people.”

Only use “elderly” when referring to those who are old an frail. Or as a descriptive as in the “elderly neighbor.” Please do not use it to generalize about those in late life.

“Senior Citizen” is often thought of as dated and as bad as elderly or old. “Senior” may sometimes be acceptable to some, but it reminds me, as written by Washington Post columnist Abigail Trafford, as “laden with stereotypes…..conjures up dentures and discounts, decline and dysfunction…”

~  Janet Pincu, MSW, LCSW, CALA