Goodbye, Spry Codgers. So Long, Feisty CronesBy Jane Gross
Comparable to racism and sexism, “ageism” refers to stereotyping and prejudice directed at individuals and groups because of their age. The term is believed to have been coined in 1969 by gerontologist Dr. Robert N. Butler, the founder of the International Longevity Center in New York City, which as recently as two years ago published a comprehensive report on the problem.
Now the center, along with Aging Services of California, has put together a stylebook to guide media professionals through the minefield of politically correct and politically incorrect ways of identifying and portraying the elderly.
Lesson one. “Elderly” is a word the two organizations would prefer we eliminate. Oops. We have used it here often.
But now we know better. In the glossary of the new stylebook, “Media Takes: On Aging,’’ the authors state their case against “elderly” as follows.
Use this word carefully and sparingly. The term is appropriate only in generic phrases that do not refer to specific individuals, such as concern for the elderly, a home for the elderly, etc. In other words, describing a person as elderly is bad form, although the generalized category “elderly” might not be offensive. (Suggested substitutions include “older adult” or simply “man’’ or “woman” with the age inserted, if relevant.)
Also to be avoided are “senior citizen” (we don’t refer to people under age 50 as “junior citizens,” the guide notes) and “golden years” (euphemisms are probably not the best way to go, we learn). “Feisty,” “spry,” “feeble,” “eccentric,” “senile” and “grandmotherly” are also unwelcome terms, patronizing and demeaning, as is calling someone “80 years young.”
The guide is ambivalent on use of the word “home” as a replacement for “skilled nursing facility.” On the one hand, it can be both anachronistic and condescending to harken back to “old folks’ homes,” which is one of the reasons Aging Services of California changed its name from the California Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. But elsewhere the guide notes (see paragraph four above) that “these facilities are indeed people’s homes,” often permanently. Thus, the people who live there should be called “residents” rather than “patients.”
The guide’s other “obviously ageist words and phrases to avoid” seem far less ambiguous. Among them are “biddy,” “codger,” “coot,” “crone,” “fogy,” “fossil,” “geezer,” “hag,” “old fart,” “old goat,” “prune,” “senile old fool” and “vegetable.” None of these — whew! — have appeared in The New Old Age. (Until now.)