Ageism: Language Matters

By: Susan Saffel-Shrier, MS, RDN, CD

Are you familiar with the term ageism? You know, another term for age discrimination.  I have found that many are not. Of course, we hear about other forms of discrimination such as gender, race, institutional, price, etc., but age discrimination, not so much. I wonder if this lack of recognition comes in part through a limited awareness, as well as a fatalistic perception of aging. In American culture, awareness of different groups can be difficult. We tend to function in limited groups and experience greater geographic mobility from our extended families. It is easy to see why involvement with older adults can be limited. Many compartmentalize older adults as someone else’s “problem” and those who live in nursing homes. How many times have you heard someone refer to an older adult as a gray hair, demented, or better yet, a catastrophic silver tsunami? We also need to let go of negative stereotypic terms such as aged, senior, and elderly. The term, “older adult,” is considered non-discriminatory.

A recent editorial in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society (JAGS)* emphasized that language matters when referring to older adults, particularly in healthcare. Healthcare providers and researchers tend to describe older adults with emotional terms such as, “afflicted with,” “helpless,” “suffering in reference to diseases,” and “functional decline.” This type of messaging has to change! Happily, the American Medical Association (AMA) has joined JAGS in addressing these issues with new author guidelines. The AMA advises to put the person first and avoid describing people as victims, but let’s not interpret this as a new fight, battle, or combat. That type of direction only raises awareness for negativity and confrontation. Let’s make this awareness a positive one.

The good news is we can practice this positive awareness on a daily basis. This can happen not only in the care we provide to older adults but in our daily workplaces as well. Did you know that the primary care physicians spend approximately 40 percent of their outpatient time caring for older adults? Another opportunity arises from the fact that there are four generations currently in the workplace. What an excellent opportunity to reciprocate awareness between the generations and dispel a sense of otherness leading to perceived limitations and faults. A just society strives to treat everyone as equal participants.

*JAGS 65:1386-1388, 2017

Susan Saffel-Shrier, MS, RDN, CD, is a Certified Gerontologist and Professor (Clinical) in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, UT.

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