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What can we do about our ageist language? Paula Coston muses

May 9, 2015
Our texts are steeped in age-based prejudice and cliché. Image copyright Roman Globa, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Our texts are steeped in age-based prejudice and cliché. Image copyright Roman Globa, courtesy of Shutterstock.

A few weeks ago my mother got a copy in the mail of a medical specialist’s letter, also sent to her doctor. It read ‘Jean is a sprightly lady of 83…’. My mum chortled, sure she’d received a compliment, delighted with the metaphorical pat on the back; on further reflection, my characterful mater wasn’t so sure about it. Last year, my father was in the throes of a large-scale, no-holds-barred party that he’d organised with his usual panache when he suddenly collapsed with a condition that occasionally recurs but which the paramedics couldn’t rectify on this occasion without taking him to hospital. As I walked beside his gurney to his little treatment room, the doctor asked, ‘Mr X, how young are you?’ ’85 and a half,’ he answered humorously and proudly. Again, he chuckled at what he perceived to be a compliment. But were these, really? I think of other well-meaning phrases that aim to praise or flatter older people: ‘spry’, ‘sharp as a tack’, ‘independent’, ‘still going strong’, ‘perfectly compos mentis’. We’d never use them of someone aged 20, or even 40. So aren’t they actually patronage in thin disguise?

There’s a wonderfully militant website for older women which points out such subtle iniquitous wrinkles in common parlance: The Old Women’s Project at Certainly for older women, condescending phrases such as ‘little old lady’, ‘you lovely ladies’ and even ‘you girls’ trip off the tongues of too many far too often. Truth is, older people are rounded, unique individuals, some frail or needy or ill, many stout and hearty and strong-willed and maybe far from ‘ladylike’, ‘lovely’ or ‘girlish’, and with years of experience ahead of them, let alone decades behind them.

Of course the semantics of age and ageing is a touchy and subjective topic, clouded in confusion by the fact that across cultures and generations, acceptable usage changes. Just as ‘homosexual’ and ‘queer’ were over the years superseded by ‘gay’ (which now seems to default in certain contexts to a preference for ‘queer’ again), so such labels as ‘older people’ are currently ‘in’ while ‘the elderly’, at least in my book, isn’t, being a kind of distancing mechanism, ascribing a kind of otherness to the older ones among us – along with arbitrary groupings such as ‘the over-80s’, ‘the over-90s’ etc, so often alighted on by politicians when contriving their seemingly equally arbitrarily ring-fenced health and social care initiatives (and personally I detest the US predilection for ‘senior citizens’, ‘elders’ and ‘seniors’). Also, the boundaries of the definition ‘older’ keep on shifting: apparently last month Austrian researchers informed us that now, ‘old age’ (whatever that is) doesn’t officially begin until our 74th year.

We all have to navigate speaking in this slippery shorthand of age, and thus often get it wrong: I’m saying ‘all’ not to exonerate myself. ‘Describe her/him: I can’t remember who you mean,’ someone will say, and the reply will probably be along the lines of, ‘S/he’s about mid-50s, tall, short grey hair, smiley’, etc. etc. Invariably the age tag comes first (only trumped by the colour tag – ‘Well, she’s black, 80 or so’, etc. etc.). Now I’m not arguing for political-correctness-gone-mad here – of course we should state the bleedin’ obvious first, e.g. ‘He’s Asian, got one leg’ – but why the laziness of age labels so often first off the bat?

Sorry, media, but journalists and their ilk are the pits at this linguistic sloth and cliché. ‘Rescuers pulled a 101-year-old man alive from the rubble of his home a week after the Nepal earthquake.’…. ‘FRAIL MOBSTER IN FRAME FOR £330M ART HEIST: The FBI is focusing its investigation on an unlikely figure: a wheezing, 79-year-old former mobster…’…. ‘Dave Watson, 55, is … unemployed due to health reasons.’….’MORE EVIDENCE AGAINST ROLF HARRIS: The 85-year-old was handed a six-year jail term last year…’…. ‘Ben E. King, the soul and R&B singer best known for Stand By Me, has died aged 76,’…. ‘The bestselling crime writer Ruth Rendell… has died aged 85.’…. ‘As someone who got married lateish – in my forties -….’….’ Of course [my italics], 64-ish … is when a man starts to feel vulnerable…’.

Surely the media should lead the way in more sophisticated verbal constructions that remind us that age is just a number, not a constraining descriptor or an infallible predictor, not a narrow channel into absurd and unfair generalisations? We ‘aged something-or-others’ or ‘over-whatevers’ are a mixed and uncategorisable bunch, with no desire for shoddy brief journalistic wordage that may serve only to bring to mind those repellent, stereotyping road signs you see near care and residential homes, black silhouettes of hunched, frail figures (‘frail’: there’s another ageist word) toiling along, prodding their weary way with walking sticks.

Commercial interests and advertising steep our textual environment with age-averse messages, which we inevitably soak up. These can be blatant. Witness the brand names: Nivea Cellular Anti-Age skin range; the cosmetic manufacturer Simple’s Age-Resisting Eye and Night Cream; Clarins’ Restorative [my italics] Day Cream (do we all need, and want, to be ‘restored’ – and from what?)…. Marketing blurbs can also brainwash us with more covert and, on the face of it, positive signals: a recliner chair is brought to you by HSL, the ‘comfort [my italics] specialists’ (do all older people want to be comforted, or comfortable?); Specsavers tell us that ‘Life begins at 60 [So does a 25% discount, the ad goes on]’ (implying, then, that some other life ends at 59?); Dogs Trust promises ‘complete peace of mind’ (are we all stressed out? Do we even want peace of mind, to me an anodyne and unadventurous concept?); Clarins enables you to ‘look as young as you feel’ (but that, of course, assumes you want to). Then there are the euphemisms: older people are ‘mature’ and, ‘at y/our time of life’, ‘deserve’ treats, luxury and that dreadful word, ‘support’. Other wordings seem to imply that all older people have limited and housebound horizons: ‘We understand how proud you are of your home’ (Stannah Stairlifts); a residential home will ‘take care of the everyday chores’ (are they chores? And/or, do we all do the ‘chores’ every day, martyrs to our own routines?). Yes, in their contexts some of these phrases may appropriately hit their target audiences; but what I’m saying is that these tropes surely gradually, insidiously, permeate societal consciousness, becoming more and more often used without a moment’s thought.

But wait: our ageist verbiage is not just tinted with prejudice and preconception against the older. I hate the American ‘senior’ and ‘elder’ not so much of themselves, implying, as they do, wisdom and experience, but because they also suggest a counterpart ‘junior’, with its connotations of ‘inferior’. Call me an idealist, but I’m not looking for ageist favouritism at the expense of those who are younger: just a level field.

Younger people suffer from our ageist language too. Image copyright Chaloemphan, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Younger people suffer from our ageist language too. Image copyright Chaloemphan, courtesy of Shutterstock.

For me, the sphere that crystallises the pervasiveness of the problem is the job market. Despite legislation against open ageism, job ads persist with phraseology such as ‘We will help foster your development in this exciting post,’ ‘Training will be provided,’ ‘We are seeking someone who will be with us for the long haul.’ Hmph, I think when I read these: they don’t want someone with my age and experience; they’re looking to save money on someone young, naïve and cheap. But there’s similar discrimination against the young: ‘Graduate required’ can be read as code for older, as can be ‘Must have at least x years’ experience.’

So what to do? It’s a far greater problem than a few people can handle, and of course only reflects the ageism in society at large. But I’d suggest three things:

– If someone condescends to you, or an older person of your acquaintance, about your/their age, don’t smile and succumb to the flattery, but pause and regard the interlocutor with a quizzical expression – or, if you can be tactful about it, question or rebut what you’ve just heard: ‘Why don’t you just ask how old I am, as you would anyone else?’; or, ‘But you’re looking good for your age too.’
– Collect examples of journalistic shorthand (‘Martha, aged 59’) and complain to the relevant media outlet.
– Audit your own speech a little. Try at least a day of fasting from such expressions as ‘the elderly’, ‘anti-ageing’ and the saccharin ‘peace of mind’.

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