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Mind your language: how speech affects aged care

But words are things, and a small drop of ink, Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.” – Lord Byron

Words are something we use every day without much thought. But language and the way we use it has also been shown to shape the way we think about space, time, colours, or how we construe events or experience emotion, among many other things.

For example, speakers of certain Aboriginal languages may have more sophisticated spatial awareness than non-Aboriginal speakers. When talking about where they are, they do not use front or back, left or right, but North, South, East and West.

Speakers of languages like Russian or Spanish can view objects differently as there is gendered grammar.

A Stanford University article found that in the world of art, depictions of death are predicated on the artist’s native language. German painters are more likely to paint death as male whilst Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.

Language can also be used to marginalise. Think of the different words used to describe refugees. Some say migrant. Some says illegals. Some use the phrase boat people. Each term brings with it a different meaning.

Now think of words some people use for older people.

Bag. Old codger. Fogey. Coffin dodger.

Or the phrase often used to talk about our ageing population, the so-called grey tsunami – a devastating altogether terrible occurrence.

University of South Australia linguist Jonathan Crichton argues that the language we use affects the way society treats certain people.

And to understand this, we need to understand how language works in this sense.

“You think about language, it’s the primary means by which anyone can articulate what they want to say, but also it’s the primary way in which people articulate their experience in the sense of breaking the world up into meaningful chunks,” he tells me.

“So you’ve got articulate in two senses there. You’ve got articulate as express and articulate like a skeleton articulates at the joints.”

In the first sense, we are articulating a thought or opinion. Or a joke, like calling someone an old fart.

But deeper down, that joke is segregating this person from others.

“Language becomes more deeply implicated in the way we treat people if you think about it in the second sense of articulate, which is that if the way you chop up the world – including people – into meaningful bits,” Crichton said.

“It is provided for you by the only language that you’ve got, then that means that the bits may prosper or perish depending on how they’re chopped up.”

Crichton believes that the use of language is often imbued with political, social and historical ideas.

“At the moment around, say, the refugee area, there’s not just a struggle of ideas, there’s a parallel, and in a way even more important because it’s less obvious struggle around how these ideas and policies are articulated.”

Using this kind of language creates groupings of people, eliminating a person’s individuality and emphasising the otherness of this group, what is better about one group over another.

Studies looking into ageist language have found that we “dehumanise” the elderly with language “thereby making it easier to oppress this group”. If members of this group are not conforming to desired societal traits, the study says, it is easy to deprive them of the rights of that society.

So, with all of this, would it be a leap to say that the way we have historically talked about the elderly informs the apparent mistreatment we have seen aired at the royal commission?

“I think that’s not an unfair way of putting it,” Crichton says.

“But the real force of what you said comes in when one considers the language that you’re referring to as a way of dividing the world up into meaningful bits.

“Because if the only options you have as a person of a certain age is to be in one of several categories, all of which cast you as having limited capacities or diminishing competencies and certain kinds of attractiveness, if the only categories available to you to be a member of society are in different ways denigrating, marginalising, disempowering, then that’s who you are going to be.”

And apart from the way in which people are physically treated, research has shown that ageism and ageist language can negatively affect health outcomes of those who experience it. Researchers have found that negative ageing stereotypes have a direct influence on cardiovascular stress, and positive ageing stereotyping interventions can protect individuals.

Language-based age discrimination is often covert and there is little written about it. Crichton believes that it is a case of language failing to keep up with a society where the way we age has changed.

“The role of people over a certain age is also changing rapidly, so essentially, on about five or six fronts: social, economic, linguistic, health, longevity, we’re playing catch-up simultaneously,” he said.

“I think language is coming to light as being important in this because it’s important across all the other areas. You can’t articulate policy without language. You can’t create products and create markets without language. You can’t brand or provide care without language.”

Crichton describes language as deep infrastructure, as the “dark matter” of any change in society.

Social psychologist Sik Hung Ng has said that language is power and discrimination cannot be alleviated nor fully understood without language. Crichton agrees.

“It’s not about expressing opinions about elderly people or older people, it’s about the options that you’re giving people within which they can meaningfully be anything in a society, and that’s what language does,” he said.

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  1. I do not think ageist language relates to older people that contribute to society but more those who need care and are not able to look after themselves. People seem to marvel at the old lady who is still doing yoga or dancing etc, but there is a growing cohort of old people who will need taxpayer support and the fear is of course that society simply cannot afford it. I do not think any amount of kind language will change the fact that the ageing population will rapidly expand beyond the tax base in the future, then how can these people be cared for in the manner expected and demended?

  2. Agree with the premise of this article, but it was marred by the use of “the elderly”. This is a value laden term as well. Those of us in the advocacy area use the term “older people” as this make us think more of human beings rather than an amorphous cohort. It also helps to understand that this is a large group of people with diverse interests and abilities. Language IS important and this has long been the challenge for people with disability as well.