It happens all the time to people of a certain age. Someone well-meaning says, “Let me help you with that, sweetie.” Another person presumes that an older person has difficulty hearing, seeing, remembering, or understanding, or needs help with technology.
This phenomenon is called “everyday ageism.” In a 2019 poll by the University of Michigan, 82 percent of adults ages 50 to 80 said they had experienced it, according to the Institute for Public Health at Washington University in St. Louis.
Sweeping judgments about groups or individuals based on a single salient characteristic — in this case, their age — can result in negative portrayals or reinforce inaccurate stereotypes. That is why journalists and other writers should avoid using ageist language, which is wording that depicts older adults in offensive, unflattering, or condescending ways.
To help in that effort, the New York and Michigan Solutions Journalism Collaborative has compiled a Caregiving Coverage Style Guide. It was created for use by collaborative members, but is freely available for anyone with an interest in avoiding ageist constructs in their writing.
The stylebook assembles guidance from various sources into a glossary of about 40 terms, including preferred usages and terms to avoid. The entries are based on – and credited to – sources including the Associated Press Stylebook, AARP’s Caregivers Glossary, the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Disability Language Style Guide, and the Changing the Narrative project. An appendix provides links to some of the source material as well as other readings that offer insights about ageism and language choices.
The stylebook grew out of the collaborative’s work covering the often under-the-radar issue of caregiving for an aging population. The collaborative is a group of about two dozen news, academic and community organizations that pool their resources to report on caregiving with a solutions lens. It was established in 2021 with the assistance of the Solutions Journalism Network and became affiliated with the Local Media Foundation in early 2022. Major funding for the collaborative’s work comes from The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, Health Foundation for Western and Central New York, and the Greater Rochester Health Foundation.
In its two years of existence, NYMI SoJo has produced approximately 65 news stories on the topic of caregiving. It also has experimented with innovative ways to engage with caregivers and meet their information needs, such as publication of a Caregiving Resource Guide. This set of online resources helps current and prospective caregivers of older adults find information and resources they need to provide the best possible care for loved ones, and for themselves. The stylebook extends these efforts.
Why avoiding ageist language matters
The American Geriatric Society says that language plays a central role in shaping the culture of aging. Similarly, as the online article from Washington University in St. Louis notes, “Improving peoples’ understanding of ageism is a prerequisite for changing the narrative around age and aging.”
Ageist language can be obviously negative or insulting terms such as “frail,” “doddering,” or “over the hill.” Or it could be the overly patronizing language known as elderspeak. (The “Let me help you with that, sweetie” phrase above is a prime example of that.)
But, notably, ageist language also can include terms such as “senior citizen” or “elderly” and descriptions that seem positive such as “grandfatherly,” or “spry for her age.” Even the commonly heard “having a senior moment” qualifies. Steering clear of ageist depictions and cliches requires some effort.
The overview to the stylebook touches on these issues and related ones, such as advice from the Changing the Narrative project about avoiding ageist story lines. Changing the Narrative notes that these come in two flavors. One is “compassionate ageism” stories, which it calls “a paternalistic approach in which older people are portrayed as vulnerable and requiring protection. The other is so-called super senior stories, which focus on individuals who accomplish things seemingly in spite of their age. As Changing the Narrative puts it, “Octogenarian Ironman finishers are inspiring but not representative.”
Although the NYMI SoJo stylebook is aimed toward a journalistic audience — the format and narrative style of the glossary will seem familiar to anyone acquainted with the AP Stylebook — it has uses beyond journalism. Anyone working in public relations, marketing or other communication roles for companies, nonprofits, government agencies or other organizations providing products or services for older people could probably find useful guidance from it.
In fact, as important as it is to avoid ageist language, an even more powerful approach is to move toward age-positive language. As the United Kingdom-based Centre for Ageing Better puts it, “Communicating about aging and older people in the right way can help to tackle ageism and promote positive and inclusive behaviour in all aspects of life, from our communities and workplaces to the media, social media and political platforms.”
The purpose of the NYMI SoJo Caregiving Coverage Style Guide is to help move the public discussion in that direction.