Perhaps your mother used the same expression that mine did, she would say “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.” I heard those words many times growing up and I have even referenced a version of them more than a few times as an adult — both as a parent and in the workplace. And while I think that this old adage has some merit, I am not so sure that words cannot hurt us, especially in the world of instant communication that we live in today.
Words cannot physically injure us, that’s true, but we live in a world where words spark behaviors that can, and sadly do, lead to harm. Words paint a picture that can help but can also hurt, they build an impression and a belief system that can damage in ways that are far reaching and long lasting.
In our world of older adult care, words are the building blocks of ageism. Older adults are characterized as “less than” and “unable.” They are minimized and marginalized through the use of language that denigrates and infantilizes anyone over a certain age. Rather than being seen as the individuals that they are, older adults are routinely painted as “vulnerable” or “over the hill” or, “demented.” All these words, and so many others, are not just objectionable and upsetting, they are just plain wrong.
Regardless of our age, each of us is an individual living with whatever life has given us. We may be an elder living with a diagnosis of dementia or a young person living with an eating disorder or anything in between. The date of our birth does not make us “automatically” anything, it is merely a marker of time and categorizing people based on age alone is not just inaccurate, it is truly prejudice.
Many of us would like to see all the “isms” disappear. I often say that “a person is a person is a person” and believe that each individual needs to be seen, and accepted, on their merit. By this I do not mean the “Pollyanna” view of the world, that we believe everyone is good and the world is a perfect place, but I do mean that we offer acceptance first, rather than judgment, that we strive for fairness and openness, that we think not just about the words we use but also the thoughts and assumptions that underlie them.
Sticks and stones may, indeed, offer us more immediate physical danger. But words, carelessly or maliciously used, can also harm. The change, as all change does, begins with each of us.