This month is recognized as Senior’s Month across many North American communities, a chance to celebrate all the good that comes along with growing older. There IS magic in being 50+ and with the right approach and attitude to aging, these can be some of the best years of our lives. In other words, it’s great to be celebrated just for having lasted 50+ years on this earth but our own opinion on the subject is what really matters most. Because of this fact, it seemed appropriate to explore the impact of language on our perceptions about aging and because June is Senior’s Month, and we’re celebrating “all things senior”, now seems as good a time as any to embrace our relative youth and erase the misconceptions of aging that come with inappropriate language use.

Language is a fickle thing. Important changes are sometimes made to address the changing times and that is a good thing. Referring to Indigenous and First Nations inhabitants is far more appropriate and respectful than any previous terminology that existed. When it comes to seniors however, it seems like we still have a long way to go to combat the kind of language use that perpetuates ageism. Take for example, some of these words or phrases you’ve no doubt heard, or perhaps even said when you were younger:

  • “I’m having a Senior Moment.”
    • The implied meaning here is that when we forget something we’re behaving just as a senior might. It infers that seniors are prone to forgetfulness and it’s often said in a funny, light-hearted way. Aging however, doesn’t always or instantly equate with memory lapses and if it does, it’s certainly not funny and can lead to significant frustration. Besides, tell me what teenage boy hasn’t left the house on more than a few occasions without their homework, or their wallet or maybe even without their pants! Teenage boys – now that’s forgetful!
  • “OldTimers” used interchangeably with Alzheimer’s.
    • This terminology is even worse than the previous example. We have often heard people laughingly refer to having “Oldtimers disease,” but if you’ve ever loved someone with Alzheimer’s and watched helplessly as the disease takes its toll on their mind, body and spirit – you will know it’s no laughing matter. It is time we demanded better of those around us and stopped using this offensive term as an excuse for leaving the grocery list at home.
  • “Senior.”
    • What exactly is a senior anyway? We’ve read (and I’ve written) many a euphemism for seniors including “older adults,” “aging population,” “elderly,” “geriatric” and even the particularly confusing “Pre-Senior, “Young Senior” or “Senior Senior,” the latter presumably referring to a really, really old person! But how old is old? Generally speaking across North America, a senior is considered someone who is 65 or older while from an advertising perspective people aged 55+ are considered seniors. Here at Amintro, we offer services to people as young as 50. That’s because we believe more in the universal desire of us all to have friendships and socialize with other like-minded individuals. After all, having contact with and sharing meaningful interactions with other older adults is an important factor in keeping us young at heart!
  • “Elderly.”
    • This one is problematic if for no other reason than it has come to signify frailty and dependency. These are definitely not factors that can be defined solely on the basis of age and we know no one who appreciates being called “elderly.”
  • “Geriatric.”
    • This term originally arose from medical terminology but is also now generally considered offensive, especially so when people use it to refer to older adults in a derogatory way. It’s an implied slur when we say someone is “ancient” or “geriatric” or to everyday household items or furniture (for example) as “geriatric,” implying it is old and decrepit.

Terms for men and women can also be offensive although, much like the gray haired scenario we discuss in our final paragraph, it seems women once again are more easily subjected to inappropriate slang terms than men. There’s “old biddy,” and “hag,” and “old crone,” “matronly” and “Cougar.” For men, they might be labelled “Grumpy,” or an “Old Fogey,” or a “Geezer.” We’ve no doubt you have experienced other age-related “ageism’s,” and we invite you to share your experiences, positive or negative, in the comments section.

Finally, sometimes it’s not just the language that trips us up but the simple fact that we’ve allowed our hair to go gray “prematurely” that invites discriminatory behaviour or assumptions about age to take place. Somehow, this too is particularly true of women. It seems when we let our hair go gray we’re “letting ourselves go” while for men, having a few silver hairs are acceptable, even “distinguished!” It’s just not fair! At Amintro, we believe in the power of older adults. We’re a community that has experience. We have worked hard, have money to spend and now it’s our time to enjoy life. It’s time to take back the meaning of aging and emphasize the positive. The next time you hear someone say something inappropriate, go ahead and help them to understand why language matters. Using polite language of course!