I’ve been following with interest exchanges in The Kansas City Star on the language we use when referring to older adults, such as one letter writer who called the word “senior” an “antiquated term.”
I am one of the authors of an editorial referenced in these exchanges: “When it Comes to Older Adults, Language Matters,” published in the July 2017 issue of Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. I also am CEO of the AGS, the American Geriatrics Society.
I’m happy to see we struck a chord with readers in Kansas City and elsewhere, so I want to provide some background on why we changed the language we use. That decision grew out of work commissioned by experts at the Leaders of Aging Organizations, or LAO. Like me, LAO members are organizational leaders focused on our health, safety and independence as we age. In 2014, we decided we needed a better understanding of why we weren’t making as much progress as we’d hoped addressing the needs of older Americans.
Each of us advocates for programs and policies with real potential for helping us contribute to our communities for as long as possible. We all agreed, however, that part of the problem in making those programs a reality was how we were communicating about them.
So we secured funding from partner foundations focused on aging and reached out to the FrameWorks Institute — an award-winning team of social scientists who help advocates learn to communicate about social issues more effectively. FrameWorks is not your typical communications firm. They seek to understand how field experts like LAO members are currently communicating, and then they help us to “reframe” how we talk so expert and public understanding are better in sync — in our case, to support us all as we age.
We learned a harsh reality through our work with FrameWorks: Our messages were not always heard in the ways we intended. Sometimes, the general public even heard the complete opposite of what we meant to say. As an example, I have long used “older adults” when talking about people at least 65 years-old — the focus of the AGS’s work. FrameWorks researchers found, however, that “older adult” evokes an image of someone in their 50s for the general public. In a nutshell, I’ve been talking about myself.
FrameWorks also found that terms like “senior” and “the elderly” make a majority of people in the U.S. think about someone without much sense of agency or purpose anymore in the course of their own lives. While many of the people our members care for do live with complex health concerns, that doesn’t mean they lack a say or stake in their health — far from it. But starting off a discussion about aging with terms many people tend to interpret in specific — and not always helpful — ways can cause them to tune out the rest of what experts have to say because it doesn’t pertain to “us” in the here and now.
In reality, aging is something we all already experience, and we can help everyone to contribute to our communities for as long as possible when we work on innovative solutions together. Getting leaders and decision-makers to hear that message is an important first step.
At the AGS, we determined that one place where we could make a real difference was with our journals, which publish much of the clinical research that leads to better care. We want to be sure that word is getting out there about that research in ways that lead to action, which is why we’re encouraging our researchers to use terms that most of society interprets in helpful ways. Our goal isn’t to change how everyone describes themselves individually. Rather, it’s to adjust how we describe the work we do so everyone can better hear us when we advocate for geriatrics health professionals, older people and their families.
As a family caregiver myself, I’ve benefited from the work of this field. And if rethinking how I talk about that work leads to a better understanding of geriatrics, I’m all in.
Nancy E. Lundebjerg is CEO of the American Geriatrics Society.