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12 Ageist Comments You Never Know are Hurtful and How to Respond to Them

Have you experienced being called “sweetie” or “honey” by somebody 30 years younger than you? How did you feel? In our society, ageism against older people is still alive and kicking. Sometimes, if we're not careful, our words can carry and convey a different meaning which creates judgments and assumptions that can discriminate an individual or a group of people.

Ageism happens when people are defined not by their personality, individuality or beliefs but by their age. Older adults are often seen as incompetent, dependent and debilitated, and sometimes, like children who need caring. In most cultures, ageism against older people through prevalent negative attitudes and thinking is generally accepted. On a larger scale, ageist ideas are often imposed by our cultural influences such as media, religion, family and society in general. For instance, “anti-aging” beauty campaigns with the use of the word itself suggest that everyone should counter aging and therefore buy products to keep their skin young. As we are bombarded everyday with ads and shows about this, we are unconsciously being molded to think that young is good and old is bad.

Ageism is so normal that it is incorporated in our everyday language and subtle comments on older people. Most ageist remarks are often overlooked or missed and although it's hurtful, older adults are forced to just accept it. At the same time compliments towards them are double-edged. If you refer to an older woman as “young lady”, you unconsciously perpetuate the idea that old is bad (so you shouldn't call them old) and young is good. By trying not to hurt their feelings, you unintentionally hurt them instead.

How did we become so Ageist?

  1. Humans are not naturally Ageist. Do you know that there were times in history where ageism against older people didn't exist? According to historians, in tribes, elders were venerated, valued and they were usually the most powerful and respected persons in the community. They have the extensive knowledge based on experience and teachings of their ancestor, they memorize their community's history, and they pass their knowledge to the next generations. Some indigenous peoples today still practice this and still recognize their elders as powerful figures in their communities.
  2. Printing Press and Industrial Revolution made older people less revered. Their roles as wise vessels of knowledge changed along with society's advancement. When the printing press was invented, the elder's unique task of passing information to younger people became irrelevant.  During the industrial revolution, families were required to be mobile to adapt to the changing market. In this case, older family members were often left behind by young relatives to increase the mobility of the family. When older people play lesser roles, they were also viewed lesser by the society, and even by their own.
  3. Fear of Death. According to Greenberg's Terror Management Theory, older people remind us of our inevitable mortality so we often link negative thoughts and feelings towards older adults. To young people, the idea of death is so terrifying that they blame older people for getting older, treating them with pity, anger, patronizing talk and irritation. By doing this, they're denying their future and tricking themselves that they won't eventually die. This negative thinking creates a cycle making older people look weaker and incompetent. It is the breeding ground for ageist insults to thrive.
  4. Institutionalized Ageism means it is embedded in our culture. Bedtime stories often depict villains as cranky old witches who want to eat children. Television shows often portray old people as frail, forgetful and always slow. Rarely do we see an active and lively old person as the star of the show (except Doctor Who of course, who's not human but an alien). A study in 2003 suggests that women aged 40 and up are just 27% of women who have roles on TV shows. Even birthday cards are ageist with their message “sorry to hear you are another year older.” Jokes on getting older, though regarded as benign humor, are half-truths of our fear of it. And last but not the least, the most prominent of all evidence of ageism is America's addiction to hide their age through surgeries and anti-aging products.
  5. Ageism in Workplace. Because older people are seen as deteriorating in all aspects, workplaces usually are harsh towards them. This is evident in forced retirement practices and age restrictions in job employment. The classified ads are overflowing with ageist content. According to AARP, about two-thirds of workers aged 45 to 74 have experienced age discrimination in the workplace.

Although it is now against the law for employers to put an age cap in job openings, they just get away with it by using different words. The phrase “we are looking for young, vibrant person to join our team” immediately translates, “we are not looking for old people.”

How to recognize ageist comments?

If left unchanged, ageist comments can erode the self-confidence of older people and make them feel ostracized.  So how can we learn to recognize ageism and how do we avoid it? Here are some ageist words, phrases and non-verbal cues that should be avoided.

  1. Offensive Descriptions and adjectives. Avoid these words because they are plain mean and hurtful.
  2. Old hag, old-timer, little old lady, old coot, over the hill, old foggy, frail, past hill, Jurassic, decrepit, ancient, biddy, codger, crone, fossil, geezer, old fart, old goat, prune, senile old fool, eccentric, feisty, spry, feeble, grandmotherly, grandfatherly and vegetable.

  3. Seemingly kind but still offensive endearments. Older people don't like being treated like babies. They are still mature individuals who deserve respect. Instead of calling them what they're not, call them by their names Ms. Smith or just plain Judith, and not sweetie.
  4. Sweet, honey, dear, darling, young lady, golden years, doughty grandma, cute, tiny, adorable, umpteen years

  5. Generalization. As much as we don't want to be stereotyped by our race, ethnicity or our gender, or be lumped into one description such as “all millennials are apathetic” or “all baby boomers are junkies”, we shouldn't generalize older people by what other older people can and cannot do, what they have and don't have.
  6. “Older patients don't have many opportunities for touch, so hug them.”
    “Old dogs can't learn new tricks.”
    “Old people are perpetually out of touch”

  7. Treating them as others. When we separate ourselves from them, we treat them like they're different than the rest. An “us versus them” mentality should be avoided.
  8. “These seniors make aging look easy, though they're four times my age”
    “We should treat elderly with the same attitude and approach as treating younger patients.”

  9. Uncharacteristic for their Age. Though it may be hard for them, older people can still learn and do new things. When they are treated like they shouldn't be able to do or know new generation stuff, it's also ageist.
  10. “A quick-witted 85-year-old”,
    “An agile 75-year-old”,
    “Feisty old lady”,
    “Wow! She's 78 and still takes online classes.”
    “This little old lady still parties like a college kid.”
    “He is 80 years young.”
    “Can you believe she's 60 years old?”
    “60 is the new 30.”

  11. Assuming they're weak. Comments like the following, though said with good intentions, suggest they shouldn't be able to do certain things because they're supposed to be fragile. Not all older adults are weak. Some even maintain physical fitness up to a hundred. Saying something like this just reminds them of the imminent decline of their health.
  12. “I'm so glad you're still up and around!”
    “You're still agile! How's your health?”
    “You shouldn't be doing that.”

  13. Lying in good faith. We are all aging and everyone is older than someone. It someone says they're not old when they are relatively older to others, instead of it being a compliment, it becomes a reminder of the stigmas that aging bring. Deceiving older people won't make them any younger.
  14. “You could pass for much younger.”
    “Oh, you're not old.”

  15. Oversimplifying words. This is when we assume that all older people have problems with understanding so we tend to speak in very simple words, like teaching a child how to talk. At times, we also over explain things that don't need explaining.  Remember that older people are not mentally slow. According to Gerontology Society of America (GSA), we don't need to change our speech and vocabulary to communicate with older adults. “Older adults maintain their existing vocabulary or continue to improve it,” wrote GSA. “They have no problem understanding complicated words that members of other groups, there is no need to simplify words to use.”
  16. Speaking slowly and in High Pitched tone. Not all older people have hearing problems so we don't need to shout at their ears when talking to them. Besides the fact that treating them like idiots is irritating to them,(and even to you) it is also disrespectful. According to a study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, younger people talk differently to adults 65 years and above than they do to younger people (25 years and up). It was observed that they speak slowly and in high-pitched voice, two of the speech patterns related to patronizing. The research suggests that this type of speech implies incompetence in older adults.
  17. Speaking to others about an older person's situation when he or she is in the same room. Aside from being plain rude, people assume that older people cannot understand their own situation and that another person (maybe younger) is required. Doctors and health care providers usually commit this mistake. If there is someone else accountable in the area, doctors pretend older adults are not there.
  18. Jokes. Every time when a person is joking about older people, he or she is actually disguising emotions and thoughts, deliberately or subconsciously about the horrors of aging. As the saying goes “there's a grain of truth in every joke.” Take these ageist jokes for instance.
  19. “At four, success is not needing diapers. At 12, success is having friends. At 17, success is having a driver's license. At 20, success is having sex. At 35, success is having money. At 50, success is having money. At 60, success is having sex. At 70, success is having a driver's license. At 75, success is having friends. At 85, success is not needing diapers.”
    “Grandma is so wrinkled she needs a bookmark to find her mouth.”
    “My old Uncle Ed still whistles at girls but can't remember why.”

  20. Ageist advertisements. Ads usually use youth-centric language such as “youthful glow,” or “young at heart.” Even blatantly claiming to “stop aging” by using this product or availing of their services. How can we fight ageism in this ageist world? For baby boomers and above: When older people encounter subtle ageist comments, some would just let it slide. But it is always good to let others know when someone's being offended to cut the culture from proliferating and end the ageist cycle. The Old Women Project developed some proven effective responses that counter awkward ageist comments that are kind in intent but are offensive in nature.

Take Control: How to Reverse Ageist Behavior?

  1. Give it back to them. If someone says “I'm glad you're still up and around”, cordially respond, “I'm glad you're still up and around too”. If a younger people ask you “Let us know if you need anything,” offer the same as well and say, “Let us know if you need anything too.”
  2. Flaunt your age when someone says you're young. Be cheerful and say, “I earned my wrinkles,” or “I'm proud of my age,” or “You know I'm old and I like it.”
  3. What do you mean? If you encounter some complement – slash – awkward ageist comment, you can always ask them with a straight face and genuine puzzlement, “What do you mean?” This way, you wouldn't be burdened to explain why the comment is ageist and offensive. It works all the time.

For people younger than baby boomers: Be sensitive towards older people. Know first if you need some adjustments (do they have problems hearing? Or speaking?), and not automatically generalize that they all have problems. This doesn't mean you should treat them like patients or someone with a disability but rather, if they are still capable, treat them as you would treat any other guy that can do normal stuff. Special treatments usually make capable older people feel incapable. And they don't want that. So don't call them “sweetie” in a high-pitched and slow manner like they're five. Address them by their names with respect instead.

However, as much as we want to avoid being ageists, there are instances when people should make adjustments when chatting with an older person with real communication difficulties. The American Speech and Hearing Association have some useful tips to ponder when talking to an older person with difficulties.

  1. Be sure to lessen background noises as much as possible.
  2. Ease into conversations gradually and avoid jumping too quickly from one topic to another.
  3. Talk in relatively short sentences but avoid asking them like five-year-olds.
  4. Give them enough time to respond.
  5. Actively listen to their stories and requests.
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