Ageism in management as shown by the expression ‘the elderly’

Senior managers in older people’s services are not immune to the stereotypical thinking that reinforces ageism, says Blair McPherson

Ageism is widespread in society. It would be naive to think it was not present in social care. Does responsibility for services to older people in need of help and support reinforce or challenge views on age; does it make you less ageist or more ageist? Does it matter if those responsible for services to vulnerable people use ageist language so long as they do a good job?

Replace the word “ageist” with “racist” and read the previous sentence again.

The expression “the elderly” is demeaning to older people. Referring to older people as “the elderly” is wrong because it fails to recognise older people as individuals. Grouping together everyone above a certain age in this way leads to negative and frequently harmful stereotypes which support unthinking prejudices and cause discrimination.

It has connotations of extreme frailty and vulnerability which is why it is wrong to refer to older people by this term as many are independent or need little support. This is also the thinking behind the national Better Government for Older People initiative.

We have every reason to assume we will live longer, healthier and enjoy a better quality of old age than our parents and grandparents. Yet, rather than being a cause for celebration, this increased life expectancy is seen as, at best, a challenge for the welfare state and, at worst, as presaging physical and mental decline leading to dependency, loss of dignity and loss of status. Planners and politicians talk of the “demographic timebomb” and the media promotes the message that youth is desirable, old age debilitating.

Old age is characterised by negative stereotypes and unsupported myths. Old age equals hearing loss, mobility problems, arthritis, incontinence and memory loss. Older people are lumped
together as if everybody over a certain age suddenly becomes identical in their lifestyle, circumstances, aspirations, attitudes and concerns. They are described as lonely, afraid and often portrayed as the victims of crime.

A recent report identified ageism as the single biggest form of discrimination in society today, far more prevalent than discrimination on the grounds of race, faith, gender, sexuality or disability. And if you think age discrimination affects only those with a pension book think again. Ageism in the workforce used to affect those aged 50 and older but a recent Panorama investigation on BBC1 found evidence of ageism against those who are 40 and over. So ageism’s targets are getting younger.

In view of ageism’s ubiquity, it would be surprising if it didn’t rub off on social workers and care assistants. As part of raising awareness about ageism and encouraging discussion among senior and middle managers, we designed a questionnaire with one question. We sent an e-mail to senior and middle managers requiring them to select one of six responses that best reflected their view about the expression “the elderly”:

  • Ageist, I would challenge it on every occasion.
  • Ageist, but I would struggle to explain why.
  • Offensive.
  • Inappropriate.
  • Not worth making an issue of.
  • Acceptable.

    The e-mail was sent to 71 managers responsible for services to people with learning difficulties, people with a physical disability/sensory impairment, people with mental health problems and older people. In addition we e-mailed managers responsible for adult learning services, museums, libraries, arts and records.

    Of the 71 electronic questionnaires sent out we had 64 replies. Of these seven managers felt too constrained by the six options preferring instead to provide comments.

    We had three questions in mind when we sent out the questionnaire.

    First, are local authority managers sensitive to the use of language about age? The high response rate and the discussion generated indicates managers are probably sensitive to the use of language. Three-quarters of respondents had a view that indicated the debate is worthwhile.

    Second, are social services managers more sensitive to the use of language about age? Just under half of adult social services managers said the term “the elderly” is offensive or ageist and 39 per cent of older people’s service managers held the same view. This compares with 33 per cent of overall respondents. This would possibly indicate a higher level of sensitivity by social services managers to the use of language about age.

    And third, are managers responsible for older people’s services more sensitive to the use of language about age? Fewer older people’s managers (15 per cent) thought that “it wasn’t worth making an issue of” compared with any other group of respondents. This seems to indicate that managers responsible for older people’s services are more sensitive to the use of language about age.

    When the findings of the survey were fed back to managers they were interpreted in different ways. Some felt that conclusions could not be drawn from such diverse responses. Others felt this was evidence that people used language in different ways depending on their experience and background but we shouldn’t read too much into this. There was a plea from some quarters that we create a climate in the workplace where discussion is not inhibited by people’s fear of using the wrong expressions and there were those who thought that too much emphasis was placed on language and that actions spoke louder than words.

    I was shocked that so few senior and middle managers did not consider the expression “the elderly” ageist and offensive.

    Blair McPherson is director of community services and organisation development at Lancashire adult and community services directorate. He is also chair of the ADSS North West Equality and Diversity Group.

  • One-third of acute hospital beds are occupied by people over 60.
  • One in five people over 80 suffer from dementia.
  • Four out of five people over 80 are mentally alert.
  • Older people are the least likely to be the victims of violent crime.
  • The recently retired are one of the main sources of volunteers.
  • 81 per cent of older people are homeowners.

  • Older people are more likely than others to be victims of crime.
  • Older people often live in poverty.
  • The ageing population is a burden on the NHS.
  • Older people can’t learn new skills.

    The stereotype of an older person is someone who is hard of hearing, suffers from arthritis, has mobility problems, is incontinent, has a poor memory and is confused.

    Training and learning
    The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

    There is a need to broaden the equality and diversity debate beyond race, gender and disability to look at issues of age and ageism. A survey of senior and middle managers in social services about the use of the term “the elderly” revealed that a minority thought the term ageist or offensive.

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