Language that Leaves a Lasting Impression
By Lori Mars, JD, NCEA Deputy Director
December 15, 2022
Many of us routinely track our activities or think about doing so. We count our steps (the average person takes 3000 to 4000 steps a day[i]
), gauge our food consumption (on average about 3600 calories a day[ii]
, though between 1600 and 3000 are recommended[iii]), and monitor our expenses (though
61% of U.S. adults don't even have a budget.[iv]
) But the activity that we most commonly engage in - speaking - is often unchecked. According to one study, the average person utters approximately 16,000 words each day.[v]
The words we use in our discourse can be profoundly impactful, but how often do we actually think about our communications and the implications that our words have on those around us?
Words are more often a reflection of the thoughts, perceptions, and biases of the speaker, rather than an exposition of the intrinsic characteristics or value of the subject. Yet, the effect of speech often lands heavily for those on the receiving end. Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed." When characterization becomes content, the consequences can be injurious and irremediable.
Take for example ageism. Language that describes older people as a group as dependent, frail, or burdensome diminishes individual aptitudes, personal agency, and the vast diversity among the older population. Through repetition and reinforcement, ageist rhetoric becomes normalized and legitimized as realized truth in the public psyche, causing consequential health, social, and economic harms to older adults. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 6.3 million cases of depression worldwide are believed to be caused by ageism, and ageist stereotypes contribute to stresses that compound the eight most expensive health ailments, resulting in over $63 billion in health care expenditures.[vi]
Moreover, as a socio-cultural construct, age prejudice is part of a larger ecosystem that can activate elder mistreatment or foster an environment in which it is more likely to occur.
According to a recent report issued by the AARP Fraud Watch Network and the FINRA Investor Education Foundation[vii]
, ageist narratives around financial fraud may unwittingly victim-blame older adults who experience financial loss. Phrases like “Alex was duped” or “Chris was conned” implicitly assign fault to innocent victims rather than ascribe culpability to criminal offenders. Associated feelings of shame and embarrassment cause psychological distress among victims. They also inhibit reports of abuse and result in fewer opportunities for criminal justice remedies and relief.
Even the use of victim-centric or survivor-specific terminology can signal and inform an individual’s identity, status, and recovery following abuse. “Survivor” connotes courage and healing, while “victim,” is frequently used by law enforcement as the impetus for investigation and prosecution. Some people use both words to express the facets of their trauma narrative and their journey to recovery.[viii]
To the individuals themselves, naming a trauma experience may be transformative and empowering, leading to better mental health outcomes.[ix]
How do we ensure that the language we use promotes elder rights, empowerment, and improved outcomes for older people?
We can begin by reframing the narrative on aging and elder abuse. The Reframing Elder Abuse communications strategy posits a solutions-oriented approach to age-bias by highlighting societal values of justice, equity, and inclusion. As a community, we can dispel misconceptions by recognizing older adult capabilities and contributions, invoking our collective responsibility to effect systemic change, and shift public understanding of age equality. AARP and FINRA suggest a similar approach to reframe constructs that implicitly victim-shame, and attribute misconduct to the perpetrator; it’s not that the older adult was scammed, but rather the criminal stole their money and wiped out their retirement savings. This approach may embolden reluctant victims to report fraud, law enforcers to prioritize fraud investigations, and enable elders to receive the supports they need.
Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of age. With the potential to shape identities, beliefs, and actions, language can reinforce our collective humanity. Used injudiciously it can be destructive. In a time when words are being weaponized to disseminate racist, antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ+ and other hate speech across communication platforms, we must denounce abhorrent discourse.
As we approach the holiday season and enter the New Year, let’s be mindful that words wield power, to be thoughtful about our own communications, and vigilant to dispel misperceptions. Together, we can elevate the public exchange and help ensure that all older people live with dignity and respect.
[ii] Renee, J. (2018). The average calorie intake by a human per day versus the recommendation. SFGATE. Retrieved from: https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/average-calorie-intake-human-per-day-versus-recommendation-1867.html
[iii] Cleveland Clinic (2022). How many calories should you eat in a day? Healthessentials. Retrieved from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-many-calories-a-day-should-i-ea
[iv] Kane, L. (2014). 61% of US adults don’t keep track of their money. Business Insider. Retrieved from: https://www.businessinsider.com/61-of-us-adults-dont-keep-track-of-their-money-2014-4
[vii] AARP. (2022). Blame and Shame in the context of financial fraud. Retrieved from: https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/money/scams_fraud/2022/07/aarp-fraud-victim-blaming-report-06-07-22.pdf
[viii] Messamore, A. & P. Paxton. (2020). Surviving victimization: Home service and advocacy organizations describe traumatic experiences, 1998-2016. SAGE Journals. 8(1). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2329496520948198