Gabriel's Horn, Pastor George Weaver, April, 2011

posted Apr 1, 2011, 8:30 AM by Lois Kerchner   [ updated Apr 27, 2011, 6:40 PM ]

Word Power 

Our words have the power to harm or to heal. While this may be a universally recognized truth, unfortunately negative vocabulary is still quite often used in relation to older adults. This use of negative linguistic references is regularly manifested in the names and in the forms of address used with older persons.

An example of this linguistic abuse involves the use of an older adult's first name, especially by a younger person, without first asking permission to do so. While there is a tendency in contemporary U.S. society to use a person‘s name without seeking permission, many older adults are not accustomed to this practice.

Secondly, the use of diminutive forms of first names, such as Johnny or Annie, with older individuals is an even more degrading usage than using the first name --these are forms that are generally reserved for speaking with small children.  Another example of inappropriate language involves the use of various terms of affection and endearment (dear, honey, poor dear, good girl, good boy) by people who have no claim to their use. Furthermore, diminutive forms (dearie, sweetie) of these words only add to such infantilization tendencies.

A further example of demeaning references used with older people includes generic names such as gramps or granny, which are usually employed by small children with their older relatives. An additional form of this kind of linguistic ageism is anonymity. Not using the name of an older person at all marks them as nonentities whose worth is negligible.

Two additional examples of linguistic ageism that often are associated with health care environments involve pronominal forms. ln the first instance, a third person pronominal reference (he, she) is used in the presence of the person being spoken about as if they were unworthy of conversational inclusion (e.g., "He's having a bad day"). A second instance involves the use of the first-person plural pronoun (we) as a subordinating communicative act, such as in the expression "How are we doing today?" It is clear in this sort of usage that there is no sense of solidarity with the older person.

Our choice of words has more significance than we tend to realize. This world can be a better place when more of us take a kinder and gentler approach in our relationships with others of whatever age.

George Weaver, Pastor of Maturing Ministries