Guest Columns

Summer reading: The language of long-term care

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Mary Helen McSweeney-Feld
Mary Helen McSweeney-Feld

A recent NPR survey of older adults had a not-too-surprising finding: No one likes being referred to as “elderly” or as a “senior.” This result is not surprising to me, but it appears that this information has only reached our media and other educational outlets very recently.  Here are a few examples of national media outlets and the titles of articles published this year:

  1. The Huffington Post published an article titled “Moving My Kicking and Screaming Elderly Parents 1,600 Miles To Be With Me”;

  2. The Daily Beast published “Are You Legally Responsible for Your Elderly Parents?” with a picture of a person with their head down, pushing an individual in a wheelchair posted above the article;

  3. The Washington Post published a column by Robert Samuelson, “The True State of the Elderly,” in 2014 that was preceded by an article by the same author called “We Need to Stop Coddling the Elderly” in late 2013. 

The quest for culturally competent language in healthcare settings needs to be inclusive of language appropriate for older persons. As early as 1995, a subcommittee of the United Nations rejected the use of the term “elderly” as an ageist term in favor of the terms “older adults” or “older persons.” Robert Butler, a globally recognized gerontologist and former head of the International Longevity Center, also promoted the use of “older adults” over the words “senior” and “elderly.”

Despite these efforts, major news outlets continue to use the word “elderly” with abandon.  CNN, Fox News, and other broadcast journalists have all used the term in recent stories. As older adults continue to remain in the community and work, the use of this term becomes offensive to many, with a good example being an article about a 71-year-old midwife still working who was horrified at being described as an “elderly midwife.” I would like to suggest a letter-writing campaign to local media outlets educating newscasters about the appropriate terms to use when referring to older individuals. People will repeat the language they read in printed and electronic media, hear on television and the radio. A national re-education campaign is overdue.

As we take our vacations and do our summer reading, choose to read items with positive views of older individuals and leave the publications using outdated language on the bookshelves and newsstands. Where we spend our media dollars will make a difference.  Let's create a positive image of the long-term care community and its valued older adults.

Mary Helen McSweeney-Feld, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Health Care Management Program, College of Health Professions, at Towson University in Towson, Maryland. She is a member of the American College of Health Care Administrators' Academy of Long-Term Care Leadership and Development, and a member of the National Association of Long-Term Care Administrator Boards' Education Committee.

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