The language of ageism. Is it okay to tell someone they look good for their age?

November 1, 2019 7:03 am

We all know our population is ageing. People are growing older than ever before, but our own attitudes and opinions aren’t able to keep up. So when we say someone looks good or is sprightly or sharp “for their age”, what are we really saying about their age?

Consumerism urges us to fight ageing as if it were a battle we could win, with an abundance of age-defying serums, wrinkle-erasing procedures, and other youthful options being marketed furiously. Mantras like “70 is the new 50” emphasise the attitude that we need to be vigorous and vital for as long as possible, and perpetuate the perception that ageing is somehow a bad thing, and that we should be clinging to our youth “for dear life”.

Instilling the idea that looking or being older is not only okay, but perfectly normal, can be difficult, as is framing language that supports a positive attitude towards ageing. For the most part, we don’t even realise that we are using language of ageism, and it can come from both internal and external sources. A recent study of language used on social media highlights some of the subtleties: “94 years old and still sharp as a tack!” Characterising that certain behaviours are unusual or outside the norm for an older person. “Proving that age is just a number!” Describing “old” as bad or a negative state. “92 but didn’t look a day over 70 and still just a kid at heart” Seeing looking and acting “young” as the positive attribute. “There is still so much to learn, even at my age!”

Ingroup discrimination in which the older adults make judgments, assumptions or denying commonality with other group members. “We don’t think of ourselves as old…our mind says we are teenagers; our body just slows us down” Ingroup discrimination that communicates hostility, derogatory, or negative slights and insults.

So, IS it okay to tell someone that they “look good for their age”? Telling someone that they look younger than their age suggests will most likely be taken as a compliment by most people, and people for the most part will mean well when they make such remarks, but in reality, it perpetuates a negative view of older age, and “dehumanises” and devalues older people.

Ageism is very real, and although this seemingly harmless everyday language may appear to be an insignificant part of that problem, surely with a little forethought we can come up with more positive language than “great for an 80-year-old.”

Language and attitudes which characterise the ageing population as a problem, a burden and a cost reinforces and perpetuates negative stereotypes, and deeply entrenched ageism is an underlying cause that often begins with the language we use.