Media urged to avoid ageist language in describing older people

Group of 150 care practitioners express concern at terms used in reports on Covid-19

The group has complained that terms such as ‘elderly’, ‘seniors’, ‘pensioners’, ‘elders’ and ‘OAPs to describe older people are ‘stereotypical, ageist and disrespectful’. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

The group has complained that terms such as ‘elderly’, ‘seniors’, ‘pensioners’, ‘elders’ and ‘OAPs to describe older people are ‘stereotypical, ageist and disrespectful’. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

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A group of medical, healthcare and social care practitioners and advocates have criticised inappropriate language used by some media outlets in relation to older people in their coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than 150 specialists working in the area of nursing, public health, medicine, social care as well as social policy and advocacy have signed a joint letter to express their “utmost concern” at ageist terms being used in some media reports.

The group has complained that terms such as “elderly”, “seniors”, “pensioners”, “elders” and “OAPs” to describe older people are “stereotypical, ageist and disrespectful”.

In the letter, which was issued to all print, TV, radio and online outlets, the group asked that “those in a position to shape the narrative of older people’s experiences in our media do so carefully”.

Upsetting

During recent media reports, they claimed one national newspaper has used the term “nappies” to describe continence management, while one RTÉ journalist had made reference to older people “dropping like flies” which they said was particularly unacceptable and upsetting.

Among those who signed the letter were Éidín Ní Shé, research fellow at the UCD School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems; Seán Moynihan, chief executive of Alone; Deirdre Lang, director of nursing and national lead of Older Persons Services at the HSE, and Tadhg Daly, chief executive of Nursing Homes Ireland.

The group also argue that overuse of the phrase “underlying condition” diminishes the lives and deaths of people who died from Covid-19.

“It also contributes to a creeping narrative that some lives are more expendable than others,” they added.

The group warned that using such discriminatory language about older people reinforced prejudicial attitudes and stereotypes.

“It may also be quite emotionally damaging and disempowering for some older people who feel misrepresented and demeaned by such terms,” they observed.

Common humanity

According to the group, ageist stereotypes negate the common humanity and dignity of all individuals, regardless of their age, and ran contrary to Ireland’s achievement last year of being the first country recognised as age-friendly by the World Health Organisation.

The group said it wished to remind the media of the power they wielded through the choice of language used in reporting on older people during the current crisis, as such language could shape our culture, values and social relations.

It called on print and broadcast media to revise their editorial guidelines to ensure that more inclusive language was used in relation to older people in future coverage.

Where necessary, the group said, the term “older people” should be used but stressed that it should always be understood and acknowledged that no two people aged the same way.