Although used mainly to refer to prejudice against older people, the word ageism can also refer to prejudice against other age groups. For example, if you describe all teenagers as selfish and undependable, you’re discriminating against a group purely because of their age, and thus are ageist in your statements. Individual ageism is seen in the general disrespect many show toward older people and in negative stereotypes about older people. Institutional ageism is seen in mandatory retirement laws and age restrictions in certain occupations (as opposed to requirements based on demonstrated competence). In less obvious forms, ageism is seen in the media’s portrayal of old people as incompetent, complaining, and, perhaps most clearly evidenced in both television and films, without romantic feelings or sexual desires. Rarely, for example, does a TV show or film show older people working productively, being cooperative and pleasant, and engaging in romantic and sexual relationships. An excellent and welcomed exception is the gay relationship between Saul Holden (Ron Rifkin) and Jonathan Byrold (Richard Chamberlain) on Brothers and Sisters.
Popular language is replete with examples of linguistic ageism; “little old lady,” “old hag,” “old-timer,” “over the hill,” “old coot,” and “old fogy” are a few examples. As with sexism or heterosexism, qualifying a description of someone in terms of his or her age often demonstrates ageism. For example, if you refer to “a quick-witted 75-year-old” or “an agile 65-year-old” or “a responsible teenager,” you’re implying that these qualities are unusual in people of these ages and thus need special mention. You’re saying that “quick-wittedness” and “being 75” do not normally go together. The problem with this kind of stereotyping is that it’s simply wrong. There are many 75-year-olds who are extremely quick-witted (and many 30-year-olds who aren’t).
You also communicate ageism when you speak to older people in overly simple words, or explain things that don’t need explaining. Nonverbally, you demonstrate ageist communication when, for example, you avoid touching an older person but touch others, or when you avoid making direct eye contact with the older person but readily do so with others, or when you speak at an overly high volume (suggesting that all older people have hearing difficulties).
One useful way to avoid ageism is to recognize and avoid the illogical stereotypes that ageist language is based on and examine your own language to see if you do any of the following:
< talk down to a person because he or she is older. Older people are not mentally slow; most people remain mentally alert well into old age.
< refresh an older person’s memory each time you see the person. Older people can and do remember things.
< imply that romantic relationships are no longer important. Older people continue to be interested in relationships.
< speak at an abnormally high volume. Being older does not mean being hard of hearing or being unable to see; most older people hear and see quite well, sometimes with hearing aids or glasses.
< avoid engaging older people in conversation as you would wish to be engaged. Older people are interested in the world around them.
Even though you want to avoid ageist communication, there are times when you may wish to make adjustments when talking with someone who does have language or communication difficulties. The American Speech and Hearing Association offers several useful suggestions (www.asha.org/public/speech/development/communicating-better-with-older-people.htm):
< Reduce as much background noise as you can.
< Ease into the conversation by beginning with casual topics and then moving into more familiar topics. Stay with each topic for a while; avoid jumping too quickly from one topic to another.
< Speak in relatively short sentences and questions.
< Give the person added time to respond. Some older people react more slowly and need extra time.
< Listen actively.
Usually, terms designating age are unnecessary. There are times, of course, when you’ll need to refer to a person’s age group, but most of the time age is irrelevant—in much the same way that racial or affectional orientation terms are usually irrelevant. When necessary, older person is preferred to elder, elderly, senior, or senior citizen (which technically refers to someone older than 65).