Ageism is contagious
Tracey Gendron, PhD, explains how ageism is embedded in our routine actions and language and how we can change what she calls ‘relational ageism’ by adopting a more neutral language.
Ageism has become so normalized and ingrained in culture that it is most often invisible. It is not only limited to obvious outright acts of discrimination. Ageism also includes the routine actions of everyday life that inform public and personal beliefs about what it means to age and be an older person.
Think about frequent intended compliments given such as: “You haven’t aged a bit” or “You look or act so young for your age!” What we actually mean to say is “you look healthy or great” or “You are engaged or energetic”. Using the word ‘young’ to describe beauty, engagement or energy and using the word ‘old’ to describe ugly, outdated or disengaged has become standard language.
Words have power. When the words we use imply that being old is bad, those listening and speaking are contributing to negative messages about aging. Those negative messages are contagious and spread silently and invisibly to others around us. I call this process relational ageism.
Relational ageism describes the cycle of prejudice that travels from person to person and informs how we feel about ourselves as an aging person as well as how we view older adults. The good news is that we can break this cycle. It’s as simple using age-neutral language that reflects what we actually mean rather than was is convenient and normalized. Now is the time to change the conversation about aging and what it means to be old.
Tracey Gendron, PhD is an Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Gerontology in the College of Health Professions at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Gendron’s research is focused on the language, expression and perpetuation of ageism, aging, anxiety, and gerontophobia. Her personal and professional goal is to raise awareness of how deeply embedded ageism is within all cultures and settings.