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Aging Well

Why Our Word Choices Matter As We Age

Have you ever considered how the words we use impact the culture around us? How do those words reflect our own attitudes, beliefs, and values? Furthermore, for those among us who work in the aging profession, how does what we say affect both how we perceive older adults to be, and how they self-identify?

How Our Brains React to the Words We Say

As humans, we are hardwired to react to negative situations, even words. Why? Survival reactions and fear of change is firmly rooted in our midbrain (or “paleomammalian brain”). As mentioned in Live Long, Die Short: A Guide to Authentic Health and Successful Aging, our midbrain is “control central” for temperature regulation, emotions and the “fight-or-flight” mechanism. When our ancestors came up over the hill and confronted a lion, this area of the brain, specifically the amygdala, jumped into action and released neurotransmitters that revved up our bodies to either fight the lion (a questionable decision) or run like hell – take to flight from the beast. The amygdala is fear central. When it fires, everything we need to fight or run is activated. All body functions that aren’t needed to deal with the situation are slowed down, ignored or inactivated. It is efficient. It is effective. It is perfect.

Unfortunately, as Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman point out in their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, even reading a single negative word can stimulate the amygdala, releasing stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. Vocalize that word, and your body will continue to release stress chemicals, “not only in your brain,” they write, “but in your listener’s brain as well.” Conversely, they suggest that positive words such as peace and love may “actually have the power to alter the expression of genes throughout the brain and body, turning them on and off in ways that lower the amount of physical and emotional stress we normally experience throughout the day.”

How does language affect how we perceive older adults? According to professor Susan Smalley, Ph.D. in her article “The Power of Words,” one study revealed that simply hearing statements about elderly people caused research subjects to walk more slowly. Studies such as this one speak volumes about how our word choice influences perception.

Words matter. Wield them wisely.
As a culture, it is time to rethink our words choices and become more purposeful in how we speak and what we say. Even seemingly innocent words can be replaced with better choices. For example, how about words like “facility?” Until recently, senior living homes were not called “communities,” but “facilities.” Prospective residents were “evaluated” to determine if they “qualify” for independent living, or if “assisted living” with special “programs” to “help” them were needed. No wonder many older adults are staving off of moving into a retirement community, declaring that they are “just not ready.” Would you want to move to a facility (aka “prison”) where your independence is potentially threatened? Personally, I would rather live in a community that’s more like a university where I would go to grow in all aspects of my life. I’ve been working with many such communities lately (many are listed in the appendix to Live Long, Die Short; two are actually called “Centers for Successful Aging”), and I’m confident there’ll be more and more making the transition from maintenance to growth. And since we’re all aging, that’s good for all of us.

I encourage leaders in the aging field to spend two weeks taking inventory of the most commonly used phrases and words that they hear. Are they empowering or diminishing? Do they offer encouragement or are they critical? Do those words have a positive message, or are they negative? Run them through this simple filter. If these words do not promote a positive culture, then there is an opportunity to replace those words with better ones.

Consider Replacing These Old Words with New Words:

Facility=Community

Assisted Living=Higher Levels of Living

Evaluation=Lifestyle Inventory

Seniors=Older Adults

Programs=Initiatives or Resources

Advice=Coaching

Help=Support

Elderly=Older Adult

Changing our words would go a long way to changing how we perceive and behave with respect to the aging community. It would also send the message to older adults that they can take charge of their own aging process, and that they can age in a better way.