Empty nesters, bed blockers and old farts. Ageist terms are not the solution
Second opinion: The ESRI scored an own goal using ageist terms in its housing report, argues Jacky Jones
Silver surfer is a relatively new ageist term which emphasises hair colour instead of computer skill. Photograph: iStockphoto
The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) recently scored an own goal when it published its paper, Housing and Ireland’s Older Population.
The authors’ use of the term “empty nesters” provoked anger and frustration among older people and their advocacy groups because of ageism and the fact that older people were being blamed for the housing crisis. This was a pity because, apart from the use of those two words, the ESRI paper was not ageist. It explored the reasonable premise that “residential immobility on the part of older people [may] result in the sub-optimal allocation of the housing stock”.
It’s conclusion that “incentivising older people to move might have less impact than is generally understood” is hardly a ringing endorsement to shift older people out of their homes forthwith. Unfortunately, the advocacy groups and the media focused almost exclusively on the “empty nesters” phrase and the valid points made by the authors were ignored.
The way reports are framed can decide whether or not recommendations are implemented. Empty nester is just one example of ageist terminology. In fact, the term was originally used by psychiatrists to describe menopausal housewives who developed depression when their children left home and women lost their sense of purpose.
Nowadays, women in their 40s or 50s are less likely to be sitting at home feeling sorry for themselves so the term no longer applies to that group. Instead, empty nester has joined a growing ageist vocabulary used to describe anyone over 60. It was as unhelpful to women then as it is now to older people. Other ageist terminology includes bed blockers, old farts/biddies, codgers, crones, and has-beens. Silver surfer is a relatively new ageist term which emphasises hair colour instead of computer skill.
The 2015 World Report on Ageing and Health from the World Health Organisation (WHO) argues that ageism “is now a more pervasive form of discrimination than sexism or racism” and that “these negative stereotypes are so pervasive that even those who outwardly express the best of intentions [such as the ESRI] may have difficulty avoiding engaging in negative actions and expressions”.
Winning and losing
Ageist language limits the way problems are conceptualised and the capacity to develop solutions.
“Empty nesters” implies that older people are rattling around in houses too big for their needs at the expense of families who need these homes. “Bed blockers” infers that older people – to whom the term is usually applied – are hogging hospital beds at the expense of younger, more deserving, sick people.
Both terms imply that older people are the problem when the reality is that policy makers are to blame for not ensuring there are enough homes and health services for everyone.
According to the WHO report, “ageist attitudes steer policy options in limited directions”. In Ireland, this has led to an almost exclusive focus on nursing home care to solve the “elderly” problem. Now there are no suitable homes for older people to move to even if they wanted to.
The use of non-ageist language frames problems in a more helpful way. The International Longevity Centre in the UK published a report on that country’s housing crisis titled Generation Stuck: Exploring the Reality of Downsizing in later life. This recommends using the term “rightsizing”.
Like the WHO report, it argues that ageist terminology “stifles the discussion on what needs to be done”. The report analyses the health and social benefits of rightsizing. Surveys in the UK show that almost half the population over 55 years of age have rightsized or are considering it.
The report warns that housing policy reforms to incentivise older people to rightsize must include measures to create an adequate and affordable supply of homes, such as ground-floor and single- storey properties, in places where people want to go. “Without suitable properties into which older households can move, the potential for increasing the trend in this area is unrealistic.”
This is the exact point made by Age Action Ireland when it heard about the ESRI report. Rightsizing can be a good option for many older people. Perhaps the ESRI could revisit its report and remove the offensive term “empty nesters”.
More people might then give the findings the attention they deserve.
Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Healthy Ireland Council.