Words matter. The words we choose convey how a person is valued and whether that person is seen through the lens of a stereotype or really seen for their unique personhood. The language we use often reflects our own unconscious biases, particularly around aging and memory loss.
We have all been exposed to negative images about age and aging through television, print ads and even birthday cards that depict older adults as forgetful, grouchy or frail, suggesting that aging is all about losing independence and identity. Even the word “old” is used as a general pejorative.
At Elder Care Alliance, we are keenly interested in the power of language in changing society’s view and value of older adults and aging – and, in particular, reducing the stigma often felt by individuals living with dementia and their care partners.
Oftentimes we become so accustomed to certain words, we fail to recognize the impact they can have in perpetuating stereotypes and erecting barriers. At Elder Care Alliance, we strive to be intentional about the language we use, recognizing the power it has to impact how we and the broader community view elders and senior living. Some of the key principles we follow are:
Person-first language. For example, we say “person living with dementia” not “dementia resident.” This recognizes the personhood of the individual and mitigates stigma associated with the disease.
Focusing on a person’s identity rather than a diagnosis or limitations due to age provides respect for the personhood of the individual. Disease-first language identifies individuals only by limiting factors rather than acknowledging the strengths that remain.
A Community – Not an Institution. Words like “facility,” “treatment,” “patient” and “unit,” when used to describe elements of senior living, portray a sterile, institutional environment. The reality is senior living communities are vibrant, engaged communities of older adults who have wisdom and experience to share. We use words like “community,” “care neighborhoods” and “care partners,” which more accurately describe senior living settings and the partnership that exists in receiving care rather than a surrendering of rights to someone to give care.
Embracing Aging. Age brings experience; knowledge grounded in experience brings wisdom. Words like “elderly,” “old” and “senior citizen” evoke longstanding stereotypes of older adults and diminish our ability to see the unique individual and their gifts. These same stereotypes can erect barriers between generations instead of harnessing that diversity of experience and insight to power our society to move forward in innovative ways.
Words like “elders,” “mentors,” “community members” and “older adults” communicate inclusivity. They underscore the reality that older adults have incredible wisdom, ingenuity and creativity to share, playing an ongoing and important role in society.
Perhaps we need to start with our own reflection on aging. What do you love about your own aging process? What are the things you fear when you think about getting older? How do we learn to embrace aging for the gifts it brings, while at the same time acknowledging its challenges?
Only when we confront ageism can we address the ways in which its effects have been engrained in institutions and systems that shape our lives from health care to the workplace. Let’s change how we think and talk about aging and older adults. We can create more age-integrated communities that support every person’s full participation in society.
Adriene Iverson is the President and CEO of Elder Care Alliance. She is passionate about serving older adults and individuals living with dementia through an evidenced-based philosophy and programming that focuses on the strengths that remain. She enjoys finding ways to transform how we think about aging and older adults and developing new service lines that help bring expertise to serve the 80% of older adults who sit between those served by affordable housing and those who can afford senior living.