We are careful about language here at Time Goes By. We don’t allow such words as coot, geezer, biddy, fogey and fossil to be used because they perpetuate negative stereotypes that are all too prevalent anyway. We don’t much like golden-ager, third-ager or even senior either because they are euphemisms invented to hide the actuality of growing old.
We prefer the substance and truth in the word “old” and we have adopted “elder” not in the old definition of wise advisor (although it can be applied in that sense to those who have earned it), but as a general descriptor of people of age.
Governments know how important language is; they use it to obscure. “Collateral damage” doesn’t conjure the mental image of bloody, mangled bodies that “dead civilians” does, thereby making war more acceptable. And a biddy is just a crazy old woman whose needs – even existence - can be ignored.
Until recently, medical studies of elders focused on disease and debility. Now, more researchers are working to determine what keeps many elders healthy into their 80s and 90s. New York Times reporter Gina Kolata has been writing an excellent series on aging and how people grow old. The latest installment concerns frailty and language.
“Frailty, Dr. [Tamara] Harris [chief of the geriatric epidemiology section at the National Institute on aging] explains, involves exhaustion, weakness, weight loss and a loss of muscle mass and strength. It is, she says, a grim prognosis whose causes were little understood…
“Now, though, scientists are surprised to find that, in many cases, a single factor – undetected cardiovascular disease – is often a major reason people become frail…
“Dr. Anne Newman, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Pittsburgh…thought of undetected cardiovascular disease [as a cause of frailty]. The idea was that blood flow to the heart or muscle or brain could be impeded even if a person had had no overt signs of cardiovascular disease…
“If they are right about frailty, Dr. Newman and others say, then the condition may be prevented or delayed by not smoking and keepiing cholesterol and blood pressure levels low and by staying active.”
- - The New York Times, 5 October 2006
Another finding, writes Ms. Kolata, is surprising to scientists (although I can’t imagine why):
“…Rigorous studies are now showing that seeing, or hearing, gloomy nostrums about what it is like to be old can make people walk more slowly, hear and remember less well, and even affect their cardiovascular systems. Positive images of aging have the opposite effect. The constant message that old people are expected to be slow and weak and forgetful is not a reason for the full-blown frailty syndrome. But it may help push people along that path…
“’I am changing my initially skeptical view,’ says Richard Suzman, who is director of the office of behavioral and social research programs at the National Institute on Aging. ‘There is growing evidence that these subjective experiences might be more important than we thought.’”
Dr. Robert Butler who, at age 79, is president and chief executive of the International Longevity Center in New York and a professor of geriatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, coined the term “ageism” decades ago. Ms. Kolata spoke with him for her story:
“Dr. Butler noticed the [pervasive stereotypes of old age] when he was a medical student. He recalls the private names doctors had for the elderly like crock and old biddy. In the decades since, he says, attitudes among doctors and the general public have not really changed. And, he adds, the stereotypes have an effect. ‘My experience with older people is that they certainly do get cowed by this,’ he said.
“But how much, and to what extent people get cowed surprised even researchers. It is hard to avoid seeing or hearing demeaning depictions of the elderly. There are greeting cards that make old people the butt of jokes. There are phrases like ‘senior moment’ to describe memory lapse. There are the ways older people are treated. For example, researchers find that people use ‘elderspeak,’ speaking louder and using simpler words and sentences when talking to old people.”
Dr. Becca Levy of Yale University has been studying the effects of stereotypes on elders for years.
“It turned out that people who had more positive views about aging were healthier over time. They lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those of a similar age who did not hold such views, and even had less hearing loss when their hearing was tested three years after the study began…
“Still, Dr. Levy and others say it can be difficult to resist the pervasive stereotypes of aging. Many people may accept them without realizing it.
“’Then they become a self-fulfilling prophecy,’ Dr. Levy said."
In other words, prejudice against elders and negative stereotypes can making people sick and even kill them before their time. And that is why, at Time Goes By, we speak up about prejudicial language whenever it turns up no matter how small the transgression seems.
I’ve been reading about Dr. Levy’s and others’ studies for ten years and writing about them here for nearly three, but only recently are they being disseminated in the mainstream media which reaches a far larger audience than this little blog. The New York Times and reporter Gina Kolata are to be commended for this ongoing series about aging and for making it permanently available online without a subscription.