Age Discrimination and Language – or why I don’t like ‘The Elderly’.


What is age besides a classification? When do we become old? What language is used in relation to people who reach certain points in their life cycle. Does a child become an adult at 18?  Legally perhaps but in a sense these are rough brush strokes which relate in very different ways to different people.  When do we stop being ‘young’ and start being ‘middle aged’? When do you move towards being ‘old’?

Wise Ones

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I’ve had growing feeling over the past years really, that our society does not value older people. Just yesterday, I received a wonderful application form from a potential student social worker. It was a positive picture of a hardworking and ethically sound potential practitioner. It warmed my heart.

But the student, although careful to detail their work with people with disabilities and children with special needs, felt that it was entirely appropriate to comment alongside this that they had worked with ‘the elderly’.

I presume this wasn’t discussed or mentioned by tutors at the university but it made me wonder how ‘the elderly’ has become more acceptable than ‘the disabled’.

I will put my hand up at any accusation of oversensitivity. I am acutely aware of the importance of language vis a vis power.  I am also aware that language shapes thoughts and reflects thought processes. If that makes me politically correct, I am proud to reclaim that label as a badge of honour.

Maybe in a society that needs to compartmentalise obsessively, it becomes more important to define someone by their age rather than their humanity but it also made me question what we mean by ‘elderly’ or ‘older people’.

Are we merely describing someone who has reached a certain age? I have worked in older adults services for a long time and some have called themselves ‘older adults’ and others ‘over 65s’ teams as a way of providing a context of age.

I read so many stories in the papers about the ‘problem’ of an ageing society and the costs of managing more dementia in society and it saddens me that age becomes another negative label and a problem for the wage-earning society to ‘deal with’. Perhaps that is the key to the perceptions that we have.

It’s natural that our perceptions of age and what ‘old’ is change with time as we and our parents, colleagues and friends move into ‘older age’ and it becomes less of an us and them type discourse and it becomes more personal.

I wonder why we, why society demands we differentiate between disabilities which are ‘age related’ and conclude that it is predominantly a cost issue. Social Security is determined by how economically productive someone is or could potentially be and when someone is past ‘working age’ their needs for social interaction and stimulation must automatically decrease?

Where is the ‘personalisation’ in the determination of Disability Living Allowance as opposed to Attendance Allowance. Look at the differences in those names.

Disability LIVING Allowance is paid to adults of working age (and children). Attendance Allowance is paid to those who are over 65. To be ‘attended to’ or ‘dealt with’. Not to live. Independent Living Fund monies were always restricted to those up to 65 (ok, now they are being wound down but the idea behind them was age-biased).

I wonder how much the Equality legislation will help? Perhaps it will but mostly I will only notice a difference when I stop seeing the ‘problem’ of an ageing population referred to and blame being assigned to people on the basis of their age.

As for me, I’m still deciding whether to raise the language issue with the potential student in their first interview with me or whether it might be something that needs some time to work on..

‘The Elderly’ No, I don’t like that. Not at all.

11 thoughts on “Age Discrimination and Language – or why I don’t like ‘The Elderly’.

  1. nice post mate. I have a fundamental belief in our individuality, need for respect and human rights. It also seems to be an absolute fact that all of this is framed within our social self via warmth, compassionate caring relationships to others.

    Made me feel good that you are in that corner that one day I’ll be living in as I age and may need care and attention from a decent and compassionate human being 🙂

  2. Wonderful post with some really valid points.

    In my previous job, I worked at a blindness organisation. The majority of my clients were over 50 and I discovered that they are just like you and I (shocking, right?!) they have thoughts, and feelings – oh my god.

    I noticed that too many people put people of this age bracket in the “useless pile” and to me it seems so silly. The clients were full of humour and wonderful stories, and were just a joy to be around.

    I think society needs to change its attitude about our ageing population. Not every person over 65 is frail or losing their cognitive abilities. Stereotyping is not cool, and I am pretty sure that the people calling other people “old people” or “elderly people” are going to feel pretty awful when it happens to them.

  3. I could write reams on this but I’ll spare you. I share you’re dislike of generic labels such as “the elderly” and “the disabled” – which have nothing whatsoever to do with ‘political correctness’.

    Within the benefits system and social “care” policy there are ageist and disablist assumptions and sterotyping based upon the idea that “disability” is ‘the inability to function to the same degree as someone of identical age and background’ as those without impairments. It is a culturally held view that “disability” is linked to day-to-day activities and therefore 65 has become the historically established economic watershed been productive and non-productive people. After 65 the system writes people off as ‘pending death’. Birmingham Social Services in 1992 didn’t want to provide ‘showers’ to over 65s on this basis.

  4. These days where I live, we refer to that demographic as “Elders”. It’s a bit of a weird term, because the First Nation’s people in my area use the term Elder as a term of respect, and someone who gives spiritual guidance, so there’s a bit of a cultural thing there too.

    • Thats A&D – That’s interesting as a context. I think I assumed ‘elder’ was about wisdom rather than age. My issue was more about use of the word ‘the’ to describe a vastly different group of people!

  5. Hi C.B,

    I think you are spot on. When I worked with older adults most people called them ‘The Elderly’ and I did struggle with it.

    Then one night I had a terrible nightmare that I was stuck at the top of a very high ladder at the summit of a steep stairway. I suddenly knew I was ‘an old lady’ and helpless.

    Someone was calling for help and describing me as ‘an old lady’ and I was horrified to think they were describing me in this way. I told them I was an ‘older person’ not ‘an old lady’. (all very strange, I know- but it did bring a new level to empathy)

    Redana

  6. really enjoyed your post – you make some great points and i am definitely taking them on board. I have only recently begun working with older people as clients since starting training as a support planner. Ive also only realised therefore that there is such a discsussion going on about terminology – but you are right – it does matter…. and you are also are quite right that it matters more and more the older WE get!!!!! and yes I think its important that that is raised with the potential student as soon as possible cos – you know what! – time is a ticking and before she knows it she will be wearing whichever label older people are given herself.

  7. Does anyone have any idea how to go about challenging ageist welfare benefits rules?

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