Carol Silver Elliott


For many of us who work with older adults, ageism is—like it or not—a fact of life.  We see it play out daily in the way that society minimizes our elders, in the way in which advanced age appears to render individuals without power, without choice, without value.  There is no better example of this than life during COVID.  Almost exactly four years ago, older adults in residential settings were compelled by the government to go into lockdown mode.  While other people were staying home and businesses were restricted, elders were summarily confined to their rooms.  Meals were delivered on trays by staff wearing full protective garb.  Activities were largely those on screens and family visits consisted of loved ones shouting through windows or having a FaceTime or Zoom call facilitated, when possible, by staff.

No one ever consulted the elders.  No one ever asked them what they would prefer or choose, either collectively or individually.  The decisions were made for them and the limits far more severe than for those living in the community.  There was no walking through the halls or heading outside.  There was life in your room and the boundaries were firm.

Many of us raised our voices, both then and now, about the ageist nature of these draconian rules.  And it led to a number of conversations about ageism, about how pervasive it is in our society, about how often older adults are characterized as “those people” or “less than.”  The list of negatives goes on and on.

In addition to that, ageism is inherent in the way in which older adults are too often infantilized.  We talk about them as needing “diapers” when the truth is that babies wear diapers not older adults.  Older adults who need them wear disposable undergarments.  Babies wear bibs.  Older adults wear clothing protectors.  None of us ever changes roles to become the parent of our parent, despite the fact that we hear that all the time.  Our parent is still our parent. Their needs may have changed but they are not our children nor should they be treated that way.  You may read this and think “those are just words” but the reality is that words have power. They create and reinforce the ageist perceptions that exist and the sheer repetition of this demeaning language shapes and solidifies our perceptions.

As individuals, and as organizations, many of us have made a concerted effort to call out ageism where we see it and extinguish the negative biases that are implicit in it.  Yet, recently, I was introduced to the concept of “elderspeak” and I took part in a webinar on that topic.  Elderspeak goes far beyond the kind of blatant examples cited above but goes deeper, identifying critical elements like tone of voice, terms of endearment and use of collective pronouns.  When we use the kind of voice we use with a young child, when we call an elder not related to us “sweetie or mama,” we are guilty of elderspeak.  When we say “How are we feeling today?” tell someone they are “looking good for their age” or administer an injection with “Just a little pinch,” that’s elderspeak.  When we ask someone to stand or join us for a program or anything else and we say “Come on and do this for me,” that is elderspeak.  In each case, it is a subtle but powerful shift of control, diminishing the elder and minimizing their adulthood and sense of self.

In a 2023 study conducted by Hannah M. Lewis et al, these instances of elderspeak are classified as micro-aggressions, “intentionally or unintentionally ageist interactions that occur in the lives of older adults.” Through their research, they found that more than half of the older adults interviewed had experienced interactions that could be classified as age-related micro-aggressions.  The emotional responses to these micro-aggressions varied but the reinforcement of societal ageism was noted, and present, in every case.

As we look at the shifts in our population, we recognize that older adults are the largest growing population.  We also know that older adults can continue to contribute, to have value, to play a meaningful role in our society.  Eradicating ageism, ageist misconceptions and ageist language is the first step to a world in which elders are treated as the individuals they are, as a person and not an age, as an individual with gifts to share and not a burden that needs to be managed.

About the Author
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ's Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as President and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is past chair of LeadingAge and the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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