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Attitudes to ageing: the role we play as comms professionals

4 January 2022

Words have the power to influence how we think both positively and negatively and can create long-lasting stereotypes – like around the topic of ageing.

We are enjoying much longer lives than generations before us, which opens up a wealth of opportunities for us as individuals and for society. And yet the way we talk about growing old and ageing is often negative and based on lazy and outdated stereotypes.

These subtle but damaging messages are everywhere, from the TV shows we watch featuring ‘doddery but dear’ characters and the ‘anti-ageing’ face creams we buy, to the media reports about the ‘burden’ of our ageing population.

At Ageing Better, we have teamed up with Age-Friendly Manchester on a research project to better understand how ageing is portrayed in society. With the aim being to shift to a more positive and constructive way of talking about ageing.

Here is what we have learned from our research and some steps we can take as communicators:

Reframing ageing

The language we use matters because it can influence how others think, feel and act on certain issues – which can in turn influence policy choices and decisions. Reframing focusses on this thinking – making conscious and intentional choices about what to include – and what not to include – in communications.

Framing research shows that any alternative narrative needs to:

  • Be hopeful but realistic and credible
  • Tell an alternative story, rather than reinforce the existing negative frames
  • Foreground social systems which significantly shape how we experience an issue
  • Be used consistently and at scale over time

Testing messaging

Our research has developed and tested new ways of talking about ageing with people of all ages through both focus groups and surveys. The messages were designed to achieve two main goals: 

  1. Make people more positive about the process and experience of ageing; and
  2. Expand their understanding of the structural nature of this experience. I.e.  that different people have different experiences due to the way society is organised and funded and that, by changing this, we have the potential to achieve a society where everyone enjoys later life.

The messages tested invoke several shared values to help achieve these attitudinal shifts. Three initial reframing routes were explored in the focus groups: the first focused on the process of ageing; the second on the experience of older age; and the third on demographic change.

Overall, messages designed to reframe older age performed the best – i.e. people were most positive about them. And the messages tested achieved what they were designed to do. This is encouraging, given that around a third (34%) of respondents in our survey remain to be convinced that society’s structures have a greater influence on ageing than our own choices.

From this evidence base we can outline some of the current dominant and preferred messages when speaking about ageing and older age:

Some examples are:

  • Changing the view of “Ageing is about old people.” to “Ageing is a life-long process.”
  • Shifting “Ageing is an inevitable process of physical and cognitive decline, leading to the destination of old and, ultimately, death.” to a message of “With the right policies, environments and support, people can age well. As we age, many of us report a greater sense of purpose and wellbeing. Our diverse life experience and skills, perspective and resilience mean we have much to contribute in later life.”

Age-friendly communications principles

People assume that older age is inevitably linked to vulnerability and dependency. To reframe this conversation, we need to stop reinforcing these beliefs – and tell a new story. Small changes to the ways that we speak and write about ageing and older age, if applied consistently, could have a big impact.

Communicating about ageing and older people in the right way can help to tackle ageism and promote positive, inclusive behaviour.

To help support communications professionals in challenging ageism, we have set out some practical steps:

  1. Shift associations with frailty, vulnerability and dependency
    Being older doesn’t necessarily mean you are frail, vulnerable or dependent. Many older people live healthy, active lives, participating in and contributing to workplaces, communities and society.
  2. Use preferred terminology
    Use terms that are precise and accurate. The term older adult(s) or older person/people is respectful and should be the standard if there is a clear need to reference the age of someone or group.
  3. Avoid ‘othering’ and compassionate ageism
    Avoid using terms and language that make older people sound like another, separate group from society, or that imply older people are a homogenous group.
  4. Don’t stoke conflict between generations
    Our research shows that despite the prominence of intergenerational conflict in public life, particularly in the media and politics, these views are not generally held amongst the public.
  5. Think carefully about imagery
    Imagery used alongside stories about older people often caricatures later life. It is important to show diverse and positive representations of older people. Use our free image library, containing hundreds of photos of people aged 50 and over in a range of settings to highlight the diversity of later life

We know that ageism is bad for individuals and bad for society.  It is crucial that we find new ways of talking about ageing – seeing growing older as a lifelong process and recognising the opportunities as well as the challenges of later life. 

To help other communicators Ageing Better have launched a new guide – Challenging ageism: A guide to talking about ageing and older age. Also, check out their free image library, containing hundreds of photos of people aged 50 and over in a range of settings to highlight the diversity of later life.

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Banner Image: Reinhart Julian on Unsplash

Niall Ryan

communications officer, Centre for Ageing Better

Niall leads Ageing Better’s communications planning and has a background in health communications. He provides editorial, strategic, creative and operational support to ensure Ageing Better’s communications activities achieve maximum impact. Niall previously worked at the Royal College of General Practitioners where he co-ordinated communications in their clinical and innovation teams. He also helped to develop and deliver a multi-channel communications strategy for Vision UK, an independent charity in the eye health and sight loss sector.