Jun 02, 2021

Is language like ‘seniors’ and ‘elderly’ disrespectful to refer to someone over 65?

Older people have long been the victims of stereotyping within modern society, and growing up in the 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon to hear terms like ‘silly old bugger’ or a person being described as ‘losing their marbles’ when dealing with cognitive impairment.

A lot has changed over the last 30 years in regards to the elderly, and with three decades worth of education and research has come the realisation that terms like that can be hurtful, and they also dilute the real problems and causes of cognitive impairment like dementia.

While some of the terms from years ago were very dismissive and insensitive regarding these issues, they were most likely born out of the lack of knowledge and understanding regarding the problem, and very few would argue that eliminating this language wasn’t a positive thing.

In 2019 though, issues regarding terminology and the policing of language are at such a radioactive level that one wrong word or turn of phrase can result in anything from losing your career through to being branded evil by the hordes of keyboard warriors that patrol the internet.

Things have gotten so out of hand over recent years that it has left many like myself questioning the validity of a number of the suggested politically correct terminologies, and wondering if some of this changing of words is merely an attempt to hide the fact that there are no new answers for many of the very real problems that people currently face.

Recently, the Journal of American Geriatrics Society signalled their intention to try and ‘Reframe Ageing’ through the changing of a number of terms and pieces of language associated with elderly people in order for researchers to be able to have their work published on this platform.

One of these recommendations is to refrain from using words like ‘senior’ and ‘elderly’ when describing people of an older age, and instead use the term ‘older adult’ when describing individuals aged 65 and over.

One of the most perplexing language recommendations called for people to stop using terms like ‘battle’, ‘struggle’ or ‘fight’ to describe ageing experiences that people may be going through, and instead for what they have referred to as a ‘The Building Momentum’ metaphor.

The example given for this actually reads ‘Ageing is a dynamic process that leads to new abilities and knowledge we can share with our communities.’

Now, while I realise that I, myself, am not an ‘older adult’, and that I haven’t spent years surveying people over 65 and asking them how they would best describe their experiences, I would be willing to bet that a large majority of them would think that the last recommendation was one of the biggest loads of rubbish that they had ever heard.

Having personally watched my own ageing grandmother ‘struggle’ and ‘battle’ to avoid letting age-related issues diminish her independence, there was not one single point over those years where I felt that she was involved in a ‘dynamic process that leads to new abilities and knowledge.’

To me, this sounds like a ridiculous level of sugarcoating, and like everything else with too much sugar, this new level of word policing is starting to leave a sour taste in my mouth.

The argument for – and against – word policing

What do the experts say?

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jenny Robinson who is a Senior Lecturer and Master of Communications at RMIT.

Dr. Robinson took the time to speak with HelloCare and share her thoughts regarding how specific terminology can affect the overall social views of older Australians.

“This is part of a larger issue that we have in society around changing the language, and changing the way that we frame matters related to people and groups so that they’re treated with respect, and that it’s a positive framing, rather than framing it as otherness,” said Dr. Robinson.

“Elderly people are often framed as non-productive and not participants in society. People look at being older as an end-of-life stage and a loss of usefulness rather than seeing it as what it is now, which is a longer period of life where everybody is very different, and that there’s a lot of capacity in life.”

When asked about whether or not changing terminology related to ageing is simply sugarcoating the realities of some people, Dr. Robinson believes that while there can obviously be struggles, it is more important to highlight the positives.

“We need to make sure that the conversation around older people and ageing with dignity happens in a way that allows the positive to come first and then obviously acknowledge the struggle.”

Dr. Robinson continued, “The way that we frame how we relate to people links back to this general debate around how we treat the elderly. We know the way these issues are framed in public life influences how individuals treat older people within their lives.”

I asked Dr. Robinson how she felt about the notion of changing words like ‘battle’, ‘struggle’ and ‘fight’, regarding elderly issues, to the suggested  ‘Ageing, is a dynamic process that leads to new abilities and knowledge we can share with our communities,’ phrase.

And while she did laugh at me calling ‘rubbish’ on this recommendation, she did believe that it came from a place of research and would be catered specifically to the American population.

“The reframing here is very much at the organisational and societal level, so when we talk about elderly and the struggle and battle in transition with ageing, that is true in many cases but that is not true for a lot of people.”

Dr. Robinson continued, “I would say that particular metaphor might work in America but I wouldn’t use that in Australia, this research is built around trigger words and were chosen carefully, and this is built on the way that Americans see that topic.”

She added, “Australians tend to be a little more down to earth and less idealistic in the language that we use, we respond to slightly more pragmatic words. But the key point is that this can be a positive thing and not always a negative.”

When asked about her experience with talking to older Australians and how she believed that they would like to be referred to, Dr. Robinson shared this unique insight.

“I often say ‘life experienced person’ or ‘experienced person’ when I work with older people, because even though they might be in the early stages of Alzheimers, that’s still where they come from – their life experience.”

Dr. Robinson explained, “’Elderly’ is a trigger word. ‘Seniors’ they don’t mind so much. We have senior pensions and they see it as a category of life and a systematic term. Elderly is problematic because many of these people still feel young and fruitful … ‘elderly’ indicates a level of definition about who they are as a person.”

She noted, “Everyone has an opinion and their own experience, and as you would know, when you see older people who are being excluded and have been labelled, a lot of these people can feel isolated.”

When asked about her thoughts on the word ‘elder,’ given the high regard that the term has in Aboriginal and Indigenous cultures, Dr. Robinson had this to say: “Older people want to be engaged to the best of their capacity for their experience and what they can contribute, so the concept of referring to these people as an ‘elder’ would be wonderful to come back to, and the idea of them being experienced, knowledgeable and wise as opposed to frail.”

She continued, “Given our indignity and the traditions that we can build upon in Australia, there’s something in the notion of ‘elder’ that I feel has great potential.”

Before adding, “What we are trying to do with the language is, allow people to see this as a productive, innovative phase of life, and something that is meaningful and valuable rather than always being a struggle or battle.”

While I do agree with a number of things Dr. Robinson did say, my fear is that people tend to go overboard with things like this.

Everyone does deserve to be addressed and regarded in a way that allows them to feel like a valued member of society, but I feel in some regard that changing terminologies to words that only reflect the positive things associated with ageing is a form of hiding some of the very real problems.

I would prefer to be able to use words that are sincere and best describe a situation as opposed to using words that fit a predetermined narrative, but at the end of the day, I’m willing to use whatever terms I’m told to use, as long as these terms make older people happy.

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  2. For at least the past 20 years the word ‘elder’ has been used in relation to legal issues concerning older adults’. There has been, for about 10 years, an Elder Law committee of the Law Society in NSW and similar in Victoria and also the national body -the Law Council of Australia. I have authored a text book on ‘Elder Law in Australia’. So, as readers will see, we are right out there with addressing the needs of the elders in our community.

  3. I believe that terms such as “elderly people” are somewhat superfluous and can be seen as demeaning/disrespectful by some in the age group being referred to. Why is it that suddenly at some “age”, determined by the politicians or other group of people in society, need to have an adjective to describe them Why not just people over the age of … (whatever the age being referred to is). Many of us recognise that “age is a number” and not everyone at any age acts/ behaves/responds/ the same or that all of us at any given age have the same capabilities. It is possible that people over “a certain age” may be offended as they may feel they do not fit into the same category as the people being described. Although no disrespect my be intended, we all know that what is intended and what is felt are not necessarily the same. The quote from Dr Jenny Robinson “Elderly is problematic because many of these people still feel young and fruitful … ‘elderly’ indicates a level of definition about who they are as a person” is insightful as that is how many people do feel.

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