Written by Morgan Van Vleck, MSW candidate at the Brown School and Center for Aging Graduate Research Fellow
Whether it be in newspaper headlines or academic studies, negative stereotypes about older adults are present in writing and everyday speech. The Reframing Aging Initiative, now housed at the Gerontological Society of America (GSA), has been working to change the way that we speak and think about our aging society. New guidelines from the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, Associated Press and the GSA are taking guidance from Reframing Aging, and moving towards eliminating ageist language. Eliminating bias in language about older adults is important because there is evidence suggesting that biased language evokes negative stereotypes about older people. These negative stereotypes have the power to impact policy, group attitudes and the health of older adults.
Some examples of biased language are “elder” or “elderly”, “senior”, or “the aged”. The new editions of all four style guides advise against using these terms because they evoke negative stereotypes of older adults, which can lead to othering older adults, bias against older adults, and poor outcomes for older adults. Instead of those terms, more neutral phrases are preferred, such as “older adult, “older person,” or “persons over 65.” It is also suggested that fatalistic or negative phrases about the aging population – such as “silver tsunami” – are eliminated from writing, and a preferred phrase used, such as “growth of the aging population.” Generally, it is considered a best practice to use language that is not othering, and that treats aging as a normal human process.
The Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging encourages all university-affiliated professors, staff, and students to eliminate age bias from written language. A good place to start is by following the best practices listed below when speaking and writing about older adults. The Center encourages use of the guidelines on age-inclusive language when writing or speaking. These guidelines can be shared in university classes and with professional networks to help stop age-bias in writing and everyday speech. Following are best practice guidelines from the new editions of the AMA, APA, AP, and AGS style guides for use when writing about older adults.
American Medical Association
- Discrimination based on age (young or old) is ageism.
- Terms like seniors, elderly, the aged, aging dependents, old-old, young-old, and similar “othering” terms connote a stereotype, avoid using them.
- Terms such as older persons, older people, older adults, older patients, older individuals, persons 65 years and older, or the older population are preferred.
- Use older adults, a term less likely to connote discrimination and negative stereotypes, when describing individuals 65 years old and older.
- Note: In studies that involve human beings, age should always be given specifically (eg, “older people aged 75 to 84 years”)
American Psychological Association
- Older persons can be described using adjectives, and phrases like “older adult”, “older patients,” and “older individuals” are preferred
- Terms like “senior”, “elderly”, and “the aged” are not preferred because they are othering
- When speaking about aging, avoid fatalistic attitudes, such as age being an obstacle to overcome or an aging population being a catastrophe.
- Aging should be conveyed as a normal human experience
- When speaking about older adults with dementia, avoid using the term “senile” or “senility” because these are outdated.
- Older adults, older persons, older people are preferred to terms lie “seniors” or “elderly”
- Older adults is best used in general phrases that do not refer to specific individuals
- Definitions and understandings may vary about the age range denoted by the term “older adult”, so clarify with organizations, individuals, or officials that use this term to get more specific language such as “new housing for people over 65” or “new exercise program for people over 75”
- While discouraged, the term elderly is permitted in headlines due to space constraints
- Elderly should not be used to reference a group, and senior citizen and elderly are acceptable only when someone prefers the term
- However, whenever possible, aim for specificity when space allows.
- Ex: Delivery man charged in fatal attack on woman, 89 rather than Delivery man charted in fatal attack on elderly woman
Gerontological Society of America
- “Older adult,” “older persons,” or “older people” are the preferred terms for describing people aged 65 and older as opposed to “seniors,” “the elderly”, and “the aged”
- Authors are encouraged to used a specific age-range (ex: “American women 75 years of age and older”)
- Authors should put the person first when speaking about an individual’s diseases or functional limitations (ex: “Person with diabetes”)
- It is also encouraged for authors to avoid terms that suggest helplessness of people with diseases (ex: instead of “suffering from arthritis” say “diagnosed with arthritis”)
- When speaking about the increase in number of older adults, avoid fatalistic phrases that suggest it’s a disaster to be avoided (ex: instead of “silver tsunami” say “increase in number of older adults”)