Sunday Seniors: Presentation tackles ageism in language

  • Liz Sauchelli. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Valley News Calendar Editor
Published: 11/23/2019 10:05:17 PM
Modified: 11/23/2019 11:00:17 PM

LEBANON — As the Twin States’ senior citizen population continues to grow, experts on aging are focused on changing the negative perceptions many people have about aging and the ageist language that can result from those beliefs.

Kelly Laflamme, of the Endowment for Health, and Jennifer Rabalais, of University of New Hampshire’s Center on Aging and Community Living and Institute on Disability, have spent a lot of time studying and speaking about these topics. They brought their presentation, titled “Changing the Conversation Around Aging: Telling a New Story,” to the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley’s annual meeting earlier this month. The crowd included health care professionals and social service providers representing a range of ages from across the region.

“We really believe this is about all of us,” Laflamme said, noting that everyone experiences aging and will benefit from getting rid of negative perceptions about aging. “Not only are we living longer, but many of us are staying healthier as we age.”

Our perception of aging stems partly from the language people use in everyday life, she said. For example, using the phrase “having a senior moment” to excuse a lapse in memory is ageist language.

“Ageism results from the images and messages we receive throughout our lives,” Laflamme said. “These all train us to see older people in a different way and then treat them in a different way.”

This is true in health care, where ageism can impact the care seniors receive. According to the World Health Organization, or WHO, citing a 2002 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, ageism can cause cardiovascular stress and those who view aging negatively can lower their life expectancy by 7½ years.

Ageism can also make it difficult to recruit health care workers who do not want to work with the aging population because caregiving jobs may be viewed as low-level work, the study found.

“Socially ingrained ageism can become self-fulfilling by promoting in older people stereotypes of social isolation, physical and cognitive decline, lack of physical activity and economic burden,” according to WHO.

“It’s detrimental,” Laflamme said. “It worsens our health.”

Additionally, ageism can discourage seniors from participating in their communities.

“Although there is substantial evidence about the many contributions that older people make to their societies, they are frequently stereotyped as dependent, frail, out of touch or a burden,” according to WHO.

Aging workers also may experience discrimination in their workplace because employers may believe those negative stereotypes to be true.

The FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit think tank, worked with the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (which includes groups such as AARP) to conduct research and come up with a plan to change public perceptions of aging called the “Reframing Aging Project.” Part of their research involved surveying more than 12,000 people to find out what views they hold about aging, and the results were mixed. While people who work with seniors generally had positive views, the general public did not. Laflamme and Rabalais were trained by FrameWorks on how to talk to health and social workers and the general public about ageism and changing the public perception of aging.

Their research has found that ageism creates an “us vs. them” mentality between different generations.

“Changing the conversation does not happen overnight,” Rabalais said. “The younger population tends to come from a position that we must fight aging.”

Ageism can be perpetuated by what people see in the media, including commercials for wrinkle and anti-aging serums that make aging seem like something that must be stopped instead of accepted as a natural part of life.

To address these vast differences in opinion, education about aging needs to start at the local level, the pair said.

It can be as simple as explaining to someone who says they’re having a “senior moment” why that contributes to ageism and perpetuates aging stereotypes. People who work with the aging population can talk to their colleagues and friends about ageism and the effect it has on society as a whole. It may seem like a small step, but the more people work to raise awareness about ageism and ageist language, the stronger society will be to face the challenges of an aging population.

“The things that surround us shape us,” Rabalais said. “We are all better off by being inclusive.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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