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Why Words Matter

Scrabble letters spelled out to say 'Words Matter'

“The first myth is that old age is a disease, a terrible disease that you never admit you’ve got, so you lie about your age. Well, it’s not a disease—it’s a triumph. Because you’ve survived. Failure, disappointment, sickness, loss—you’re still here.”— Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn

Words have power. They influence how we think and act. They can create labels, misperceptions, and misrepresentations. They can also shape our understanding in meaningful and positive ways.

This past April, I had the privilege of facilitating a conversation with Susan H. McFadden, PhD, author of the book Dementia-Friendly Communities: Why We Need Them and How We Can Create Them. During that conversation—which you can watch here—we discussed why words matter, especially in the context of how they can create and perpetuate stigma, shame, and misunderstanding around dementia and aging.

As Susan shares in her book, the Dementia Action Alliance created a wonderful online publication—Words Matter—to address stigmatizing language and develop a new framework of language.

For example, when describing a person living with dementia as “suffering,” a “victim,” or “demented,” harmful barriers and stigma are perpetuated. These words diminish the person to whom they refer. The preferred rephrasing is “an individual living with dementia.” This helps appropriately reframe the dialogue by recognizing that the individual is living with a condition, nor defined by his or her diagnosis.

The Words Matter publication was created in collaboration with individuals living with dementia, helping to reinforce the message and truth that “individuals are not their condition.” And that “[u]sing appropriate language is a sign of respect, support, and non-discrimination.”

At around the same time that the Dementia Action Alliance was involved in their important work on language, the American Geriatrics Society and other leading age-focused organizations—a coalition known collectively as the Leaders of Aging Organizations—was engaged in similar work around language.

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Click on the image above to watch “Change Your Words, Change Your World,” a powerful video clip illustrating the significance of words.

The Leaders of Aging Organizations worked with the FrameWorks Institute, which researched and reported their findings on the disconnect between public perceptions and misunderstandings about aging. Then they addressed how to shift to productive narratives that “advance a view of older age that sees it as a period of challenges and opportunities and counteract the fatalistic view that nothing can be done to improve aging outcomes.”

One result of this work is Reframing Aging, an initiative that is “countering ageism by changing how we talk about aging.” This Initiative offers access to evidence-based tools and training opportunities as the coalition continues “to advocate for changes in public discourse on age.”  

Check out this Quick Start Guide from the FrameWorks Communications Toolkit. The toolkit offers up ways to reframe our language about aging. Here’s an example:

  • Instead of these words and cues: “Tidal wave,”“tsunami,” and similarly catastrophic terms for the growing population of older people. Try: Talking affirmatively about changing demographics: “As Americans live longer and healthier lives … .”

At the heart of this work, I see an encouraging shift from talking about us (older adults) as others—a move away from an “us versus them” mentality. All too often, our society is segmented and siloed by age. Some of this is self-inflicted. Personally, I have appreciated “senior“ hours at grocery stores during the pandemic. But in our day-to-day language, we need to put forth a more productive conversation on aging, which we should adopt and model.

The language we use goes a long way to advance more positive associations with aging and encouraging inclusivity. Let’s discourage the use of terms such as (the) aged, (the) elderly, seniors, and senior citizens in our discourse. Why? These words purport discrimination and negative stereotypes about aging, and citizenship is not of concern. The reframing of language allows us to be more reflective of our lived reality.

Words matter. Words have power. Let us use them to accurately represent who we are.


Contributor Keri PollockContributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, a care management, consultation, and creative engagement practice based in Seattle. She is a member of the Age Friendly Coalition for Seattle and King County and serves on the Advisory Committee of the Frye Art Museum Creative Aging Programs and the Marcomm Council of the Alzheimer’s Association, Washington State Chapter.

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