Come on, you know what they are:

  • lovey
  • dearie
  • old fella
  • oldie
  • the old fart
  • you old folks
  • young man or young lady
  • over the hill
Portrait of surprised excited young business woman covering with hands her mouth, over grey background

The ‘dirty words’ are those that attach an ageist attitude towards older people. After all, I take offence at the young cashier at the supermarket who calls me ‘love’, as in ‘How are you going, love?’ and I am only in my mid 50’s. If you don’t know me, or my name, I’d appreciate if you’d just stop at the ‘How are you going?’

The Royal Commission’s recent report ‘Neglect’ noted that it is not only uncovering substandard and, in some cases, horrendous abuse, it is also shining a light on our drift as a nation into an “ageist mindset that undervalues older people and limits their possibilities.”

Donna explains:
I’ve seen this first hand with my own relatives when someone who was well-meaning (in their own mind) glibly said to an older parent: “well, you old people better get ready for bed, we don’t want to keep you up.” Well, hooley dooley, the reaction from the said ‘older person’ was like the uncapping of a volcano and rightly so.

As the Commission points out, “the language of public discourse is not respectful towards older people” and this needs to change. If we as a nation are so called ‘clever, innovative and caring’ – then why “have these qualities been lacking in our aged care system?”

Ageism can hurt. It can hurt the individual that it is unthinkingly directed towards, it can hurt our society when it doesn’t recognise the value of older adults and classifies them as less than useful.

I think that a lot of it comes from our outdated thinking about what it means to be old.

Being old is negative, being young is good! Just think of all the ‘anti-ageing’ creams that are advertised – you obviously don’t want to age!

Being old means to be frail, to be decrepit, to be senile, to be incompetent, to need care, to be a burden…

And it is not just the actual words used. For those working in aged care, have you ever caught yourself unintentionally using ‘Elderspeak’?

Elderspeak is a style of speech that is categorised as being slower and using exaggerated intonation, elevated pitch and volume and a simpler vocabulary than normal adult speech. It’s a patronising language that can be heard in aged care facilities where staff use it, often unconsciously. It’s similar to that used when we address very young children. But the people you support are not infants, they are seniors with many years of life experience behind them. They may have been doctors, lawyers or farmers, have travelled the world, learnt a number of different languages and seen some amazing sights. Don’t demean their intelligence with babyish talk.

‘The ageist insults his own future self.' – Jamie Austin

Hopefully because we are all living longer and healthier lives, one day you will be that older person. I’m guessing you don’t want to be subjected to the ageist attitudes of others.

So what can you do to avoid falling into the trap of unconscious ageism?

Think about the person you are providing support to as an individual first and foremost. Get to know about them and their background.

I watched a friend (who is a nurse) in a rural facility addressing a resident and noted the lack of Elderspeak in her voice. The dialogue was friendly and relaxed, discussing what was happening in the resident’s family and asking what the person wanted to do about something that had come up. It was similar to watching an interaction between friends or colleagues. There was no patronising here.

Find out how the person prefers to be addressed and/or what is appropriate for the setting when working cross culturally.

Some people prefer a more formal address, such as Mr Jones, while others want you to refer to them by their given name or a nickname. In some of the remote Aboriginal communities I have worked, the preferred address is Uncle or Auntie, or an alternative term of respect in that language. Learn what these are and what people’s preference is.

Check the language used in brochures and handbooks.

How are you referring to the people who access your service or live at the place you work? Rather than writing about our ‘senior citizens,' you could simply use the words ‘older person' or if ‘older' is not relevant, simply ‘person’. In residential care settings people might prefer to be known as a resident, after all it is their home and they reside there – ask the person involved.

Don’t make assumptions such as expecting an older person to want to go to bed early, or avoid certain activities because of perceived risk to them.

To quote the now late Clive James, celebrated Australian writer, poet, observist and satirical genius, who was also an octogenarian: “I never feared growing old, because I was always very conscious that I was bad at being young.”  I read this and I can see the cheeky glint of memory refracting the past to the present, yelling to be heard – I am still ‘me'.

Old people have been living with risk all their lives; they have been making choices and living with the consequences of those choices. Remember, they are still a person, they are just older.

If you can think of someone else who might benefit from this article, please send them a link. We’d appreciate it! And if you’re looking for more helpful resources to keep your service or organisation compliant, why not check out our Total Quality Package resource hub? We have culturally appropriate, tailored resources that are designed to make your job simpler and help you provide quality care to your clients. Click here to find out more.

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