Little old ladies and grumpy old men how language shapes our views about aging nc state extension publications

Little old ladies is just one of dozens of unflattering terms used to refer to older adults. Examples include grumpy old men, geezers, bats, witches, and other belittling expressions. Virtually everyone has encountered words of this sort at one time or another. They are found in newspaper stories and magazine articles, heard on television, and overheard in conversation. Studies have shown that they are used by people of all social classes and even by older adults themselves.

Although these expressions are used in certain situations for light humor, they have the effect of lumping all older adults into one category, rather than focusing on individuals. This language of aging helps create or reinforce stereotypes of what it is like to be an older adult, even though the images are unrealistic and virtually obsolete.


Hearing this language may influence our attitudes about and behavior toward older people. It may even affect our own aging process. This is unfortunate because research has clearly demonstrated that the older population is diverse; that most older people are active, independent, and happy; and that many of the problems thought to be due to aging are preventable, reversible, or can be delayed for years.

Language has the same kind of power when applied to people. The student labeled bright or smart is treated as intelligent, while the child labeled slow is expected to perform poorly. These labels may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy because they reinforce an image or expectation that eventually affects each student’’s self-concept and performance.

Labels applied to whole groups of people are at the root of prejudice because they emphasize difference and suggest that one group is better than another. Studies have shown that these labels affect how people are thought of and treated and may even affect how they come to think of themselves. Nursing home residents labeled fragile learn to be fragile.

The impact of labeling can be quite significant for older people. Some specialists who study aging and old age suggest that when a person is labeled old or talked to in a patronizing way, it can start a cycle of deterioration that results in feelings of incompetence. Research done in nursing homes suggests that residents labeled fragile learn to be helpless and actually become helpless. Interestingly, though, most older people, even cancer patients, tend to see themselves as above average and “exceptions to the rule” when it comes to aging, prob­ ably because of the negative view of older people most of us seem to hold.

The lowered expectations for older people that are reinforced in our casual conversations may impact us in other ways. For example, both health professionals and older patients may ignore or dismiss treatable symptoms (e.g., memory loss, leaky bladder) because of the mistaken belief that such symptoms are the result of “just getting old.” Also, if we believe we are “over the hill,” we may balk at starting an exercise program because we think it will not make a difference. In fact, research shows quite convincingly that even frail elders can benefit from an exercise program.

• Talking to or about older adults as if they were children. The practice of infantilization, or treating adults like children, is insulting at any age. Studies have shown that some staff members at nursing homes and in recreation programs use language similar to baby talk and a high­ pitched voice when talking to older people. Although we sometimes speak of old age as a second childhood, most adults wish to be treated like adults. Avoid words that diminish people in size and therefore power (e.g., little old lady, cute couple) and words that suggest familiarity or closeness (using first names when not invited to do so, or calling an older person sweetie, dearie, honey).

• Expressing surprise at older people’’s accomplishments or suggesting that older people are obsolete. When we ask a person if he or she is still working or still driving, we imply that we are surprised that they are doing something most people their age don’’t do. We reinforce a rather narrow image of what most older people are like or capable of. Other words to avoid are out-of-date, rusty, past one’’s prime, has-been, and over the hill.

• Using words that suggest that older people are physically unattractive and have negative behavior and traits. Many of the most vivid and vicious words and expressions fall into this category and paint a word picture of older people as withered, fragile, annoying, unpleasant, and mentally incompetent. Some examples are old fool, old biddy, curmudgeon, fruitcake, dried up, Sunday driver, and many others. Most of these are clearly putdowns, reflections of anger toward older people and fear of aging, or they are used as “insult humor.” Although unflattering characterizations of older people date back hundreds of years, these expressions appear to have become more popular recently, much to the dismay of today’’s older adults, who remember a time when people spoke to and about elders with respect.

Perhaps the most effective way to counteract such pessimistic language is to replace it where possible with positive words, such as mature, sage, venerable, and others that respect the strengths, contributions, and potential of older adults. Choose words that emphasize older adults’’ endurance, longevity, experience, resilience, and wisdom.

My own work has shown that, when asked, people contribute longer lists of negative expressions about older adults than they do positive ones. This suggests that all of us may have to make an extra effort to change our everyday conversations. Some ideas can be found in recent books about positive aging: Vital Involvement in Old Age, Reclaimed Powers, The Fountain of Age, Late Bloomers, The Ageless Self. These titles and the words on the positive word list can help us broaden our thinking and replace language that limits our potential with a language of possibility.

The benefits of renaming the conditions of aging to reflect the more positive possibilities of life likely will be numerous. A recent study of the ways in which older adults respond to stressful mental tasks in a laboratory showed that those presented with positive words about aging during testing were less likely to experience cardiovascular signs of stress than were people who were presented with negative words about aging. One team of gerontologists suggests that a focus on the positive aspects of aging will bring about a reversal in the cycle of deterioration and breakdown in confidence sometimes felt by older people and will bring about a “reconstruction” of self-esteem. More positive language and images can be motivational—, encouraging people to plan ahead for their later years, to engage in healthy lifestyles, to seek prompt attention for symptoms instead of dismissing them as a consequence of aging, and to summon up energy to try new things and meet new people.

In a recent newspaper article from Topeka, Kansas, one writer reminded readers why the expression little old lady is obsolete: “Those four ‘little old ladies’ sitting in the booth at your neighborhood restaurant have nearly 300 years of accumulated information, stories, and experience. Perhaps they haven’’t just awakened from a nap. Check their bags for dance shoes, laptop computers, or golf balls.” Perhaps one day we’’ll replace talk of little old ladies and grumpy old men with stories of vital and vibrant adults of all ages.