The Words We Use

I had the privilege of attending the national conference of LeadingAge last week. LeadingAge represents more than 6,000 nonprofit organizations that serve older adults, primarily those in housing, long term care and senior health services. There was a lot of conversation at the conference about changing names for some of the existing service models, specifically focused on continuing care retirement communities (CCRC). The term CCRC has been around for a number of years and it describes organizations that offer a full spectrum of services from independent housing through assisted living to long term care. The term itself has come into question by some and a large, independent research study was done to ask older adults as well as professionals how they felt about the use of “CCRC.” Turns out that nobody really liked the term and that our older adults specifically objected to the use of the word “care.” To them it sounded like giving up control of their lives, of the assumption that they needed to be “cared for” when they are still — to whatever extent — capable of caring for themselves.

It’s a valid point and one that has implications far beyond the word “care.” The words we use matter, the way we describe things makes a difference and the world is filled with words and terms that are not positive reflections on our older adults. Think about some of the colloquial phrases that are used to characterize older people. You hear folks talk about “she’s losing it” or “he is over the hill.” It’s not uncommon to hear someone say “move it along, Gramps” to someone who is a stranger to them or “what an old hag.” We devalue older adults when we do this, we make them part of a group that is no longer relevant or important or meaningful.

Yet we know that is not the case. Many of our older adults have much to contribute, they are productive well into their older years, still working and producing and making a difference. And all of our older adults, regardless of the impact of disease and/or disability, have value and can teach us so much if only we stop and listen.

In our world of long term care services, we are working hard to change the vernacular we use. As an example, some older adults need assistance with meals but they are not babies that need to be fed, they are adults who require some help with dining. Others may need assistance with personal hygiene and that’s not “toileting,” it is help to freshen up or assistance to the restroom. As well, we want to know how someone wants to be addressed and to use that form of address. If someone prefers the courtesy title of Mr. or Mrs., that’s what we should call them. If they prefer their given name, or a nickname, we need to know that as well. No one is routinely “sweetie” or “papa/mama.” It matters. Dignity is built upon the words we choose to use. They frame the way we view the world, what we perceive and how we interact.
What words do you use when describing older adults? How can you change that frame and help us to change the world’s perspective?

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 chair-elect of LeadingAge and past chair of the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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