Successful Aging: What words to use, which to avoid in describing the older generation
By Helen Dennis, LA Daily News
POSTED: 06/16/14, 9:39 AM PDT |
Last week D.W., age 64, expressed dismay about the lack of a good term to describe aging boomers. “Senior citizen” and “golden ager” didn’t work.
This week we are continuing the conversation tapping the advice given to journalists.
In a report “Words to Age By: A Brief Glossary on Tips and Usage,” Paul Kleyman, journalist at New America Media, surveyed nearly 100 journalists for the Journalist Exchange on Aging to get a sense of the language they used in covering issues of aging. Here are a few principles noted in the report.
• Elderly. “Use this word carefully and sparingly.” The term is appropriate in phrases that do not refer to specific individuals such as “concern for the elderly or a home for the elderly.” It should not be used in reference to a person’s deteriorating condition.
• Seniors. A style guide for one family of newspapers say that reporters should be specific when possible, reserving ‘seniors’ when no other descriptive will work.”
Additionally journalists are urged to use adjectives that are accurate and avoid patronizing or demeaning words such as “feisty,” “spry,” “sweet,” “eccentric,” “feeble,” “senile” and “grandmotherly.”
• Activity and relationships. Describing an older adult as “active” should also be avoided. This implies the older individual is an exception, suggesting that in general, older people are sedentary.
Additionally, don’t mention relationships when they are irrelevant. An example of an inappropriate use of reference to a relationship is “Golda Meir, a doughty grandmother, told the Egyptians…”
• Mentioning a person’s age. Don’t mention it unless it’s germane. A news story about an 84-year old truck driver who hit two cars should cite facts that his or her age was relevant to the accident.
An example of this is: “Rep. Nancy Pelosi, age 65, held her latest grandchild as she announced that preschool education would be among her top issues.”
Her age was not fundamental to the story.
• Be aware of political spin. This applies to public policy aspects of a news story. For example, the use of the term “burden” can be misleading. We may read it causally such as the “burden” of Social Security or the “burden” of our aging society.
It implies that the ills of America are primarily caused by our aging population.
• Avoid the naïve sense of wonder. This is my favorite both in news stories and general conversations. Operative words are “remain” or “still.”
Example: “At 76, Smith remains active as a eacher…gardener…or hang glider,” which assumes one typically is inactive at age 76.
“Remains active” can be erroneously interpreted as a “vestige of one’s waning power,” Kleyman writes.
On a personal note, here are some questions often asked of me.
“Are you ‘still’ working?” “Are you “still’ running?” “Are you ‘still’ doing yoga?”
It’s yes, yes and yes, with appreciation for the interest and gratitude knowing that many cannot.The most recent question is from an acquaintance who asked me what’s new in aging. After my rather comprehensive reply, she asked in all seriousness, “How is your memory?”
My acquaintance was worried I would forget to remind her friend to take some packages home. There were no “remains” or “stills,” yet the expectation was clear.
Professional journals also have guidelines. A notice to those submitting papers to the “Gerontologist,” a highly regarded peer-reviewed journal on aging, reads, “Please avoid (using the terms) elders, older adults, or other words…” Caregivers, Alzheimer patients and study participants are more commonly used terms.
People’s response to age-related language can depend on their chronological age, generation, cultural community and personal preference. Avoiding preconceived notions and remaining neutral is important not only for journalists, but for each of us in our everyday lives.
So what are the words commonly used? I gravitate to the descriptor indicated as the most preferred among journalists: “older.” I also use terms such as “later life,” “the next chapter,” and the “older generation.”
The guidelines for journalists can help us become more aware of implied ageism through the subtle use of language. By astute listening and use of accurate words, each of us can debunk the stereotypes and erroneous assumptions about aging. Consider that a collective goal.
Thank you, D.W. ,for your important question.
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