The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. As we wrote earlier this year, words can hurt, even the well-meaning ones. Studies have shown that our perception of aging impacts just how well we handle it, and that the subtleties of our language matter. As such, we’d like to stomp out these phrases that demean older people — whether they are meant as compliments or not:
1. When a waiter asks an older woman, “What can I get for you today, young lady?”
Hmmm. Maybe start with an order of respect, followed by a main course of dignity? The waiter should greet the woman as he would any other customer. Ageism occurs when people aren’t age-blind. The waiter would never ask a teenager, “Would you like ground pepper with that, Grandma?” now would he?
2. “My grandparents are so adorable.”
Adorable is for babies and puppies. It is not a term of endearment when applied to someone in their 60s, 70s or 80s. It makes many older people cringe because they feel they are being infantilized. “Infantilizing [language] can make us think (and make older people feel) as if they are incompetent or irrelevant,” Tracey Gendron, an assistant professor of gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University, told The Huffington Post.
Research shows that older people are seen as high in warmth and low in competence. And the language that we use to talk about and to older adults fuels this perception. “We should use the same language that we use when talking to anyone else,” said Gendron.
A study by Gendron, published last summer in The Gerontologist, took a look at ageism in tweets sent by students participating in a senior mentoring program. After each visit with an older adult, participants posted their reactions on Twitter.
Twelve percent of these tweets contained discriminatory language, Gendron found. Some seemed benign on the surface. As one wrote, “What a sweet woman! I especially love her little winks (#herecomestrouble).”
In short: Let’s lose “adorable,” “cute,” and “sweet.”
3. “She’s 75 years young.”
It’s said with a smile and meant to elicit a laugh, but this comment also says something else. It says that “young” is a good thing, which when flipped around, makes being “old” a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with being older; in many cultures the elderly are valued for their knowledge, wisdom and insights. Stop acting like being older is something to be unhappy about.
“When we use the word ‘young’ for the default of what is good and ‘old ‘as the expression of what is negative or bad, we are tripping over into ageist language,” said Gendron. She told The Huffington Post, “yes, this is often done unintentionally.” Unintentionally is still bad.
4. “You are only 70 ... oh, you’re not old.”
Once again, notes Gendron, “we are saying that being ‘old’ is bad.”
5. “You don’t look 65 years old.”
First of all, there’s no logic to this one. If I’m 65, then this is what 65 looks like. The problem is in the speaker’s perception of what a 65-year-old should look like — and the underlying assumption that looking younger is a better thing.
6. “You are still ....”
“Still” is one of those words that reeks of ageism. An example, “He is 85 and is still volunteering!” The word “still” is a qualifier here and expresses the belief that the activity is surprising for someone of that age. When we set ourselves up to believe that aging is all about decline and that “old” is a bad thing to be, we are developing internalized ageism, says Gendron. Internalized ageism causes negative health outcomes (higher blood pressure for example) and can cause social isolation because we then don’t want to associate with those “old people” when we are older. In other words, it sets us up for “othering” ourselves away from other people, she said.
7. “You are proof that 60 is the new 40.”
What you mean is that I am energetic, engaged, maybe even know some hip places to eat. What older people hear is this: Being 60 is a bad thing.
8. “At your age, you are allowed to forget some things!”
Age-blaming is a slippery slope. Having a “senior moment” has become synonymous with being forgetful. Memory loss is not the sole purview of older people. And not every person who locks their keys in the car is older. We all forget things when we are stressed out, over scheduled, and didn’t get enough rest. How about just assuming that older people have the same issues as everyone else and their age had nothing to do with the fact they forgot to pick up milk at the market?
9. “My mom is the best!” (followed by a text she sent you in which she appears stupid or tech-illiterate).
If you think so highly of your mom, why are you so eager to publicly shame her? Most likely she missed something that autocorrect did — like you’ve never done that, right? You are sharing your mom’s text because you think older people don’t understand technology and you find that funny. What you are really doing is reinforcing a stereotype — one that translates into older workers being unable to get hired at jobs they are perfectly capable of doing. Older people may not have been born with smartphones in their hands, but that is not to say we can’t figure out how to use one.
Please quit the tech-shaming unless you want to see those baby photos where you’re naked in the bathtub show up on Facebook. Yes, we know how to upload photos.
10. “Wow! You’re sharp as a tack.”
Why does this surprise you? Everyone ages differently, and yes, while memory issues are real, don’t assume that all older people have lost theirs. In the same vein, doctors should speak directly to their older patients, not about them to their patients’ adult children.
In general, it’s a problem when people conflate aging with being ill or disabled. The normal slowing down of the body is not an illness. And as Gendron notes, ageism really makes no sense since we are all aging.