Welcome to Kir

Language of aging

You may have been taught the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names can never hurt us.” But the truth is, words are powerful, and the language we use can be hurtful.

Consider the following words often used to refer to the elderly: old fogey, old bird, little old lady, grumpy old man, geezer, bag.

The picture these words paint isn’t pretty. And Lucille B. Bearon, Ph.D., of North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, says it’s time to think twice about using them.

“The language of aging helps create or reinforce stereotypes of what it is like to be an older adult, even though the images are unrealistic and virtually obsolete,” says Bearon, associate professor and specialist in adult development and aging. “Hearing this language may influence our attitudes about and behavior toward older people. It may even affect our own aging process.”

Research has clearly shown that most older adults are diverse, active, independent and happy, and that many of the problems thought to be due to aging are, in fact, preventable, reversible or may be delayed for years.

So what can you do to make a positive difference in the way older people are viewed?

Bearon suggests the following:

Change your opinion of the word old. After all, old isn't really bad. So instead of saying “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better!” try saying “You’re getting older and better!”

Treat older adults as if they are adults. Sometimes when we encounter older people, we tend to treat them like children. But most adults do wish to be treated like adults.

Expand your expectations for older people. Expressing surprise at an older person’s accomplishments for instance, the fact that they are still driving or still working reinforces a narrow image of what most older people are like or capable of.

And if you’re looking for more positive words to replace those negative ones listed above, the following list is a place to begin: a woman (or man) of age, vintage, venerable, wise, distinguished, seasoned, veteran, classic.

“Focusing on the positive aspects of aging really can make a difference in the way people feel,” Bearon says. “More positive language and images can actually be motivational encouraging people to plan ahead for their later years, to engage in healthy lifestyles, and to summon up the energy to try new things and meet new people.”

“Perhaps one day,” she adds, “we'll replace our talk of little old ladies and grumpy old men with stories of vital and vibrant adults of all ages.”