Sticks and Stones….


How much weight does a word carry? We’ve all heard it said, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Is that really true?

People-First Language, “a form of linguistic prescriptivism aiming to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization when discussing people with disabilities” (Wikipedia) believes that words can hurt. That’s why they have advocated to “impose a sentence structure that names the person first and the condition second.” (Wikipedia) Hence, the change from handicapped to people with disabilities.

Is People-First Language appropriate for the aging sector? I know from experience gained by participating in national forums that what we call people who are older is a hotly contested debate. From all accounts, the appropriate terminology seems to be subjective and as varied as the individual. But, is the lack of People-First Language in the aging sector perpetuating the unrelenting stereotypes of decline and diminished value that have been attributed to people who are older? Can terminology really become a box that confines people to the stereotypes ascribed to them?

People-First Language believes, “As a society’s language changes, as we talk about PEOPLE FIRST:

  • Perceptions will change,
  • Attitudes will change,
  • Society’s acceptance and respect for people with disabilities will increase, and
  • An inclusive society will become a reality.”

Or is prescriptive language but a ruse when the real changes in attitudes and perceptions are brought about by the integration and contributions made to society by people with disabilities and people who are older. Is it integration that demystifies the stereotypes that have been perpetuated more by ignorance than anything else?

I know my attitude has changed towards people with disabilities since they have been providing custodial services at our facility for more than a decade. It is this personal contact with people with disabilities that helped me see past the labels to the individual people that they are.

Could the past models of retirement have hurt the perceptions of people who are older more than anything they are called? Could the marketing of retirement communities where people are enticed to take up residence in the sun for endless rounds of golf and self-indulgence around the pool and shuffleboard courts caused a disconnect between society and people who are older?

I recall Aesop’s Fable of “The Lion and the Mouse” where the removal of a nagging but seemingly insignificant sliver in the foot of the lion completely changed the relationship between the two from adversaries to friends. Are the words we use the sliver in the foot of society? Or is the problem segregation created by outdated models of retirement established over 50 years ago?

Questions like these need to be pondered by advocates in the aging sector to release people who are older from the bondage of the stereotypes that lead to ageism.

What do you think?



    Labels matter and I welcome your essay and concern. I’ve long objected to the senior term unless used with juniors and intermediate terms. Forget Golden Agers Forget “elderly” and “the elderly” above all. Say “elders” and why not “old people” and be proud of it. I don’t say the disabled but disabled persons – I say people without homes not the homeless. Say alcohol dependent not alcoholic. Etcetera. But am so tired trying after all these years and no changes made. Incidentally, I am likely one of the most elder columnists anywhere and one who writes about ageism and age apartheid but don’t dare say too much or might lose column. search Bette Dewing .sometime – go back to Ed Koch dying – How’m I doing? column Thank you for considering.


    • Bette, So good to hear from you again. I always appreciate your thoughtful comments to my blog. We share a passion to eliminate ageism, although you have been carrying the torch longer than I have. It’s a slow, frustrating cause for which there seems to be little momentum. I am going to send you an invite to a special group, so look for it on your email. Warmly, Kathy


  2. There’s an inherent “catch-22” with language, in that after awhile, the new expression starts to take on all the unwanted grime that had accrued on the old one. Take “senior citizen” for example. That used to be considered very respectful, but now we “see through” it to the “real” meaning, and get the same oh yuck response to it as to its ancestors.
    -Karen, of


    • Karen, I agree. Until the “yucky” stereotypes disappear, any name that becomes associated with them with take on their “stink.” Ageism must be challenged internally as well as externally. That begins with education and integration of the generations.


      • I heartily concur. Linguistic band aids alone won’t do the trick.


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