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What to say and what not to say: A new language guide for combatting ageism

A new language guide has been released to the public covering what to say and what not to say when communicating and interacting with older Australians in a bid to combat ageism.

<p>The guide touches on the nature of language and how the wording choices people make can drastically impact how older people feel about themselves. [Source: iStock]</p>

The guide touches on the nature of language and how the wording choices people make can drastically impact how older people feel about themselves. [Source: iStock]

Anti-ageism advocacy campaign, EveryAGE Counts, has launched the guide as part of its goal to end ageism against older Australians, providing simple tools and advice on what language and behaviours to use to ensure the rights, independence, capacity and dignity of older people are respected.

The guide touches on the nature of language and how the wording choices people make can drastically impact how older people feel about themselves.

Changing the common language used can be the first step toward changing attitudes and beliefs about older people and ageing, and is a good place to start in order to end ageism both in and out of aged care.

EveryAGE Counts Advocacy Campaigner, Joel Pringle, says the way people talk and interact with older people really matters for their health and quality of life.

“Despite good intentions, unfortunately, many people of all ages still equate older age with negativity,” he says.

“Being aware of our language can undermine ageism, instead of reinforcing it.

“That’s how we can end ageism.”

So what terms should need to be avoided and how can older people call out ageism when they see it?

Terms to avoid

EveryAGE Counts has provided a number of terms that they want the public to avoid when referencing older Australians. This can also give you a good idea of what to look out for if you are experiencing ageism or suspect you are.

The terms include:

“The elderly”

The guide suggests that the term “the elderly” puts all older people under a single label simply because they are all over a certain age. There is a lot of diversity among different age groups, EveryAGE Counts explains that lumping people in their 60s in with someone in their 90s is not beneficial.

Also, when people put ‘the’ in front of a group of people being referenced, it creates an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ – and that usually means a difference in value and power.

“The ageing population”

This term is suggested to only be used when talking about a statistical population trend. News media outlets can be big culprits in talking about ‘population ageing’ and the economy. This may cause older people to feel like they are a problem or burden on their community.


Many older people prefer “seniors” compared to terms like “the elderly” because it suggests a position of status in society.

But this term also lumps people over a certain age into one demographic that is significantly diverse. There is also an alternate meaning for “seniors” in our society which suggests someone has certain skills, knowledge, attributes and behaviours, which aren’t always linked to being an older person.


Like “senior”, there is an implied authority and wisdom in the title of “elder” that doesn’t automatically come with age. But it is important to note there can be a particular cultural meaning associated with the term that needs to be considered.

For example, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, Elders are highly respected for their wisdom, cultural knowledge and community service and are recognised as a custodian of knowledge and lore. Other factors outside of age can determine whether someone is recognised as an Elder in their community.

Instead of referring to these demographics in the above terms, the guide recommends using the terms “older person”, “older Australian” or “older adult”.

Saying no to ageism

If you are experiencing ageism in your life, it can be handy to know what you can do to dismantle the stereotypes people may have about you because of your age.

Some ways to combat ageism can include:

  • Not letting yourself be pushed around or disrespected, so speak up when you feel uncomfortable or feel like you are being treated differently to everyone else.
  • Consider interacting with younger members of your family more and participating in conversations where you can to make those around you aware you are just as able and interesting as they are. It may help change your grandchildren’s perspectives about you!
  • Stay engaged in the world and maintain a level of mental and physical agility in order to overcome ageism. Showing others that you still have the ability to care for yourself in some capacity, are as independent as you can be and are engaged in current events can also reinforce there is no difference between you and those around you.
  • Being open to change and the constantly evolving world can also help break down stereotypes. Like staying engaged, being open to trying out technological devices like iPads or surfing the internet can broaden your understanding of the tech world, but it also shows you are not succumbing to the stereotype that older people are technologically illiterate.
  • If you are still living at home and have some free time, it may be a good idea to consider volunteering to have the opportunity to interact with younger people while keeping your brain and body active. If you can’t volunteer, perhaps a community class like pottery or a gym class like pilates can others see you as being independent and motivated.

The above tips can also be utilised by older people living in aged care, as you will feel more confident to speak up, have greater control over your life and feel more empowered about who they are and how they are living.

Ageism harms older people in many ways, particularly those residing in aged care, so it is important for aged care staff, nurses and other allied health professions to learn how to foster a respectful, safe, and empowering aged care experience for older people.

This guide has been developed for all the people who work in the aged care system, as well as family and friends in partnership with the Brisbane North PHN, the healthy@home consortium, and is supported by the Australian Government Department of Health.

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