by Alice Fisher
January 3, 2017
“Movements are engaged in ‘meaning-work’…the struggle over the production of ideas of meaning…The failure of mass mobilization when structural conditions seem otherwise ripe may be accounted for by the absence of a resonant master frame.”
Reframing Aging: Seeing What You’re Up Against and Finding a Way Forward, Frameworks Institute, April 1, 2015
Old people have been getting a bad rap for a very long time. And, in case you haven’t noticed, since we have a new president-elect, there is now an out-and-out war against older adults.
I’m not proposing that age prejudice is more devastating than any other prejudice. What I am doing is calling attention to ageism, which is pernicious in our society and yet rarely included when other “isms” are mentioned. Age prejudice is the most widespread prejudice endemic to our culture as it affects every other group-whether a person of color, a woman, or LGBTQ. Why aren’t more people interested in this devastating cultural development? Ageism is a prejudice that is not bound by gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or economic status. If we are lucky to get old, it is a prejudice that everyone will have to confront. There is a saying in the field of aging: “If you are an ageist, you are setting up a prejudice against your own future self.”
As the Radical Age Movement and other organizations are confronting aspects of ageism which include invisibility, marginalization, isolation, and loneliness, we recognize that age prejudice is a poison dart shot into the self-esteem of so many older adults. It is internalized, turned into depression, and leads to an earlier decline. We must work to stop such damage—from others and done to ourselves, for we are now again threatened with Medicare and Social Security insecurity. Those who seek to destroy our benefits are counting on us to withdraw, stay depressed, remain quiet. This cannot happen!
One of the tools we already have at our disposal is language and how we use it. When, ask yourself, did reverence, respect, and honor disappear from the lexicon of aging? Why do elders around the world express the irrelevance to society they now feel after years of engagement with and contributions to the communities that they live in? When did older adults become geezers, biddies, codgers, and crones, old goats and old bags? Ask yourself why we see these words on birthday cards that are assumed to be funny yet target older adults with insulting humor. Why is the growth of an older population called a “tsunami” instead of a “wave of wisdom and experience”?
Think about how recent movements have resulted in language change; the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the LGBTQ Movement, among others. Regarding Ageism, The Frameworks Institute describes ageism as being an important concern among professionals that is otherwise absent from thinking among the general public:
“While aging experts are attuned to the myriad ways that older Americans face discrimination in our society, the public is largely not attuned to this factor or to the need to address it via legal and other systemic means.”
We need to turn to language to create a society that is attuned to the ways that older Americans face discrimination. If we look at language as a symbolic system through which people communicate and through which culture is transmitted, it is not difficult to see how the words mentioned above like geezers, biddies, codgers, and crones, old goats and old bags should not be acceptable to anyone who believes that everyone should be valued throughout the lifespan regardless of age. How can we take the presently pejorative meaning of the word “old” and make it a future positive?
That’s an easy one. What about, however, the word “senior”? As “senior” today is imbued with all of these negative images conferred on older people through our culture, many older adults, particularly leading edge boomers, refuse to be categorized in this way.
In a report on language change by the National Science Foundation, we are told that:
“Languages change for a variety of reasons. Large-scale shifts often occur in response to social, economic and political pressures. History records many examples of language change fueled by invasions, colonization and migration. Even without these kinds of influences, a language can change dramatically if enough users alter the way they speak it.”
At the Radical Age Movement, we believe that longevity and the opening up of a new stage of life along the life-span has fueled the call for language that enhances the concept of ageing to replace the demeaning language that has grown up in the 20th and 21st centuries.
In her book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, Ashton Applewhite suggests that we substitute “olders” and “elders” to replace the homogenized term “seniors” which lumps all people over 65 into one category. Nobody knows what to call those of us born during and after WWII; we are referred to as “young seniors” or “leading edge boomers” for lack of any other appropriate term that is acceptable to those being described.
So, what can we do to change the language of the current ageing narrative? Again, from the National Science Foundation, “before a language can change, speakers must adopt new words…, spread them through the community, and transmit them to the next generation. In order to do this, we all need to develop critical language awareness.
Here are some questions we could ask ourselves, from The Power of Talk: How Words Change Our Lives, by Briscoe, Arriaza, and Henze:
- What social relations or social process does this language reflect, reinforce, or reproduce?
- If I want to change these relations or process, what else besides language needs to change?
- How can I link language change with broader social change? Or the reverse—How can I link broader social change with ground level changes that might be reflected in language?
We cannot ask others to change their language until we look into our own ageist tendencies and work on changing our own language; and, by doing so, we develop a powerful weapon to fight this war on old people. When you read, hear, or use language that in some way perpetuates or reinforces ageism, cultivate the habit of imagining alternatives. Ask yourself “How could I have said this in another way?”
Today I am inviting all of you to create space for yourselves and others to imagine what a new alternative language of ageing would look like. All suggestions accepted, staring with “I’m proud to be old!”
Alice Fisher is Founder and President of the Radical Age Movement.