Language Is a Big Part of Ageism

May 15, 2023 | Uncategorized

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How we talk about, talk with (or to) older adults is important. Language can hold veiled ageism.

May is Older Americans Month, and time for a rant, er, commentary about ageism and language. (OK, Sugar? Is that alright, Dearie?)

I have a relative who is currently in rehab. The commentary, nearing complaint, is of witnessing and being the unwilling recipient of ageism and ageist remarks. She got called “Sweetie” and that was the lead domino for a lively exchange about her encounters with ageism.

We’re texting and acknowledging intent. The intent is the first consideration. The caring and good intent can be in place. Delivery (when, how) connotes intent. It is either with care and concern or with disdain, arrogance, or simply with innocent ignorance of how the message may change as it travels from Sender to Receiver. 

You see, my relative and I both live in the South and have long heard many terms of endearment (Dear or Dearie, Honey, Shug, Sweetie, et al.) that do convey caring and concern. I’ll bet that I could not go a day without hearing or being addressed as Darlin’, Shug, Young Lady (I’m 66), and the like. It may be a cultural or regional norm but that doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make it right for our changing society. 

Most times, the persons who are delivering mean no disrespect or ill intent. In fact, quite the opposite is often true.

Recently I had some medical care which included pre-op appointments and an overnight stay in a hospital. In the hospital was referred to as “Sweet Pea” and the like more times than I can count. To look at me, I am not at all a Sweet Pea in my estimation, and I imagine many patients aren’t feeling so sweet when they’re not in tip-top shape. 

I found myself accepting (and thereby complicit, I now wonder?) of these terms of endearment because the intention was of caring and concern and to a degree, respectful. I most certainly would have picked up on it if I were being dismissed or somehow categorized or glossed over. I would have recognized if the delivery was reinforcing the Sender’s power and my (Receiver’s) lack of it. I made the decision at that time not to comment or protest. 

I leaned in on what I gathered to be good intent. But inside, I am thinking

I won’t call you Sonny if you won’t call me Sweet Pea.

Perhaps I should have said something. I should have figured out a way to simply and properly provide feedback to the Sweet Pea Delivery Personnel. But that would have meant constantly monitoring their utterances and waging a feedback campaign that may result in little permanent change in someone’s work behavior. Yep, it’s bigger than anything I or my relative can change from the hospital bed. 

In our texts, my relative and I began to volley about intent versus delivery. We agreed that even if intent were good that somehow this language, these words, must stop. 

There’s a lot coming to light in the media about ageism and while yes, it is systematic (will require cultural and systems change), there are some things individuals like my relative and I can do. 

Language is but one facet of a larger issue, ageism. How big and how invasive is this problem?

Ageism in the United States

Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel), and discrimination (how we act) towards people on the basis of their age. Age is one of the first things we notice about other people. Ageism arises when age is used to categorize and divide people in ways that lead to harm and erode solidarity across generations. 

As a society, it seems we rely heavily upon our assumptions. A national poll on Healthy Aging by the University of Michigan showed that almost half of older adults reported experiencing ageism during personal interactions when others assume because of their age, they have difficulty using technology (22%), hearing and/or seeing (17%), or remembering and/or understanding (17%). 15% of older adults also reported that others assume they do not do anything important or valuable.

Reinforcing ageism is not harmless.

Reinforcing ageism is not harmless. Older adults who continually experience ageism start to internalize feelings of worthlessness that can lead to anxiety, depression, and poor health. Another kind of harm comes from witnessing and deciding to adopt this behavior. For example, if the new staff person is observing or shadowing the more seasoned one and hears Shug and Sweet Pea used to address older customers, patients, or clientele, then what kind of behavior and communication standard does this set? What will more than likely be adopted? It seems probable that instances without protest will lead to adoption as learning. This will extend the assumed validity. 

I thought about my role models: parents, teachers, supervisors, public figures – all sending and all receiving, all the time and over time. Then I thought about reactions.

My dad took it. Perhaps Dad was from a generation who did not see it nor question it but he’d definitely been imprinted to accept it. Either that or he acquiesced because he recognized the words and delivery as good intent and felt no threat. 

Later he perpetuated it by making light of it. In fact, he often retold the story in animated fashion of “his gal” (that reference was a problem, Dad) at Wendy’s handing over his Frosty and saying, “Here you go… Schweetie!”. He described the Wendy’s worker as an older lady with gobs of lipstick and he would purse his lips as he repeated Schweetie.

But as we’ve established, much of the threat inside ageism is veiled. Of all those present in that lone drive-thru, or before, or after, in the course of one day – how many were affected? Imprinted? Behavior reinforced?

No matter how long we’ve witnessed or participated in this and feel it is no longer suitable, how then do we change?

What can I or another do to interrupt the pattern – to stand up for ourselves or another?

Here are some actionable steps for your consideration.

  1. Recognize it: To create awareness requires an understanding that there is a problem. In other words, you can’t change something you don’t know it needs changing, including yourself.
  2. Speak up. If you hear something ageist, consider pointing it out in a calm, respectful manner. I could have at least said from my hospital bed, “Please call me Nancy,” without starting a grand debate then and there.
  3. Ask yourself, “Would I like it?” Treat older people with the respect you want. Think about whether you are patronizing or talking to them like a child. I hear this all the time, and yes, in modern healthcare: the patronizing reference to someone you don’t know as “Honey or Dear” or an older patient in a healthcare facility who gets the “we” treatment, as in, “We are going to get dressed now.” Have you ever witnessed someone noticeably increase their volume as they address or talk with an older person (whose hearing was probably just fine)?
  4. Be inclusive yourself. Across all generations, in your thinking, and in your activities – those attended or ones you direct, plan, or create. Foster real talk opportunities and honest exchange and minimize the chance or need for such labeling. If you’re an employer you can put a zero-tolerance policy behind it (and in this age of employees’ evaluating and questioning policy, it could very well serve as an educational moment, I’m just sayin’…).
  5. Give yourself a break. Now you know. If you’re thinking that some behavior or language choices you thought were respectful could be ageist, now you’re enlightened. And you can make the choice to speak and behave differently in the future.
  6. Help bang the drum. I may be shifting one person’s paradigm at a time but I can do several within a week. I meet enough folks and am in a position to be vocal. I can accomplish #2 above in a one-to-one exchange. I can write a blog or create a video to further my notion and post online regarding this experience, giving others the opportunity to consider following suit.

Older American Month is a great time for all of us to honor our older adults by standing against ageism.

Ageism will not go away by itself. Older American Month is a great time for all of us to honor our oldest citizens by standing against ageism. Misuse of language is just one portion of ageism but it affects all ages, not just older adults!

By understanding that intent is one thing and delivery is another, we can also understand that both carry choices. We can understand that some ageism is veiled but recognizable, and what comes next are choices still in the instances of witnessing, acquiescing, adopting, and perpetuating.

As I write this, another thought or rather a query just popped into my head, another guiding force: “What side of history do you want to be on?” (Me? Open-mindedness, action, change). And in our increasingly global society, we can have an influence on what remains or becomes a norm or what is considered politically correct. Also, we don’t have to be complicit or ignore a behavior simply because of our geographic location.

As for my relative, she is hoping to receive a Patient Satisfaction Survey to use as her vehicle toward change. To get one will be to unleash her sword, the written word, for that woman. She is formidable.

If you call me Sweetie, well, you will get a reaction from this lady. You may not hear it or see it. She may choose her battles in the moment but she can help to wage a bigger war. 

Nancy Ruffner is a Patient Advocate, consultant, speaker, and coach working to assist clients nationwide with healthcare navigation, the challenges of change, and successful aging. Offering Complimentary Consultations toward engagement. 919.626.4428