Ageism – Language and Terminology

In this week’s blog, Age Allies volunteer Jackie reflects on the ways in which ageism is prevalent in our language and terminology.

I recently graduated having researched and written a work-based doctorate (DProf) on “Active Older People Participating in Creative Dance – Challenging Perceptions”. When I left my management career in 2008, I wanted to get involved in dance activities again. I did not know exactly what that would entail. I thought I was an adult who left fulltime work and was proceeding on to the next stage of my life, which would be spent in paid and unpaid work and pursuing interests. I soon realised that I was labelled “retired” or “OAP” together with everyone else aged 60-105+. I definitely did not want perhaps the next thirty or so years watching TV, doing the garden, playing bingo and becoming increasingly marginalised and isolated!

There was no terminology to create more precise, meaningful concepts for different groupings of older people. Older people are not a homogeneous group. We are all individuals with different needs, responsibilities and opportunities and these are influenced by health, education, where you live, resources available, wealth etc. I used the term “Active Older People” to differentiate the cohort I was researching from vulnerable and frail people and young people. There was not an agreed term for the type of dance I was involved in and researching. There was ballroom dancing (my parents social dance! although this is gradually changing since Strictly Come Dancing has popularised ballroom for all ages), line dancing and gentle exercises or aerobic exercises. When I was younger, I had done lots of creative and contemporary dance. Since leaving work I have attended dance sessions, performed and offered opportunities to other local older people by creating/managing a dance grassroots organisation. I thought many people would not know what contemporary dance was and so used the term creative dance, as this involves expression and creativity and is not dependent on one technique or physicality. So, my dance concept became “active older people’s creative dance”. A mouthful, but this phrase expressed the type of dance I was researching at the time. Hopefully as time goes on a more precise term will be acceptable.

It is common knowledge that Inuit people have many words to define different types of snow, where we only have one. This example shows that words point out and define concepts that are important to that culture. Ageism in Western Society has seen older people marginalised, written off as a single cohort or often referred to in negatives terms such as “old geezer”. This is now beginning to change but there is still a long way to go.

In the news, we are increasingly being told that there is an ageing population and more people are living longer with better health than previous generations. However, data often does not differentiate between different cohorts of older people. I visited a third sector organisation on Friday based in a hospital in North London and had to fill in some detailed forms giving information about myself. One question asked my age and there were different groupings going up in decades until “Over 65”. Now, this means all the data for over 65s is being gathered as a single cohort.

How useful is that?! Whenever I see this gradation, I always add a comment “This is ageist, all over 65s are not one cohort!”. Remember, lots of decisions about predicting the needs of society such as the NHS, housing, etc are based on data that groups all over 65s together.

Our language and data collection really has to catch up with new realities. People are living longer, people of all ages have different life styles, and there are many different health and disability issues in all age groups. Ageism and assumptions about ageing are embedded in our language and this affects our thinking, behaviour, attitudes and ways we relate to other people. Age UK London’s Age Allies programme gives participants the chance to reflect on their own assumptions, the ways in which age affects them, and how they relate and think about different people. One of the benefits I have found performing as an older dancer is that younger people say that seeing older people dancing in confident, friendly, expressive ways gives them hope that ageing need not be feared and life does not become dreadful once youthfulness wanes. There is life after full-time work and everyone can be encouraged to lead positive, meaningful lives.

To find out more about the ways in which the Age Allies Programme combats ageism, visit the Age UK London website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *