Ageism in Language – Writing Guide for Media, Journalism, Advertising and Entertainment

by Derrick on March 1, 2009

The International Longevity Center, a nonprofit research, education and policy organization that addresses aging, and Aging Services of California have produced a new aging “style guide” for journalism, entertainment and advertising. This is the first such product I’ve seen for writing on aging. Given that I have an undergraduate degree in English and professional experience in the aging field, this style guide is . . . just my style. The guide can be downloaded right here.

The power of language is strong. There are reasons why the use of certain terms has been criticized by groups and individuals advocating particular causes like feminism, racism, etc. The words we use define how we think and how others perceive what we say. For example, those in the disability field have pushed for “people first” language. Where one may have previously called someone “retarded” he/she now refers to them as “a person with mental retardation”. The difference is slight, but significant. The first belittles the individual, and the latter identifies the person as a person – with a condition. Likewise, this style guide states:

The added years of life that are now available for so many is requiring that we as a society change obsolete mind-sets and attitudes about growing old. The social construct of old age, even the inner life and the activities of older persons, is now subject to review and revision. The very words we use to describe people are undergoing greater scrutiny.

The situation is described as such:

An October 2, 2008 article in the New York Times by John Leland noted that professionals sometimes refer to it as elderspeak, the “sweetly belittling form of address that has always rankled older people: the doctor who talks to their child rather than to them about their health; the store clerk who assumes that an older person does not know how to work a computer, or needs to be addressed slowly or in a loud voice. Then there are those who address any elderly person as “dear.”

The guide is great in that it provides clear examples of ageism, suggests words to avoid, offers recommendations, etc. Anyone that works in the aging field, or in communications and marketing should read this guide and put it to use. Let’s put ageism to rest – changing the use of language is one part of achieving that goal.

Reseller Hosting January 10, 2010 at 6:23 am

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Madeleine August 30, 2009 at 3:35 pm

I’ve been looking for something like this style guide, and it seems quite thorough and helpful, based on my skimming it quickly. I don’t whether it mentions the term “young lady” as an example of elderspeak, but that’s something that many women who are, obviously, not “young ladies” find very patronizing. What makes it worse is that the people who use such language seem to feel that they’re being really nice, which makes a not-so-young-lady uncertain whether she should object or just let it go. Thanks again for this making this document available.

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