Language matters. And we, as nonprofit writers of materials from fundraising letters to press releases to blog posts, can add to or prevent harmful stereotypes, whether they are racist, gender-based, or ageist.
Ageism, unfortunately, lags at this point when it comes to our sensitivity to language. Many writers have not educated themselves about what is ageist and what is not. Some of the style books we all use don't have much to say about aging.
For nonprofits, that neglect can be deadly. A Blackbaud Institute study found that the average age of donors in 2019 was 63. Also, Baby Boomers are the best donors. How old are they? Their ages range from the mid-50s to the early and mid-70s. You don't want to tick off this age group.
Most experts on aging agree that there are some things you should not do when writing about or for older people.
Here are several "don'ts" when writing about older donors:
Don't call them "old," "elderly," or "senior citizens."
The whole concept of who is "old" has become very slippery. Yes, to a young child, almost any adult is old, but to the rest of us, only people who are a whole lot older than ourselves are old. Use the word "older," never "old" -- as in "older people."
"Elderly" should only be used as a modifier, as in "elderly patients," and only when referring to those who are truly old and frail. Do not use it as a general term for all those in later life. This is considered stigmatizing since not all older people are fragile.
Although "senior citizen" is frequently used in the media, avoid it in your nonprofit communications. The term is just plain out-of-date. To most older people, being called a senior citizen is just a euphemism for "old" and "elderly."
"Senior" is still acceptable to many older people, but don't use "senior" to describe anyone younger than 65. There is also evidence that boomers may dislike this term when applied to them.
Don't refer to them as crones, curmudgeons, geezers, or any version of "golden."
Maybe these terms were once mildly amusing. They are not funny now. Avoid words and phrases that date people or communicate unnecessary connotations, such as "of a certain age." Even talking about the "golden years" is problematic, probably because it implies an ending as in the sunset or the colors of autumn, and has been overused in referring to the retirement years.
Don't act astounded that older people can still walk and talk.
We can hear the gee-whiz tone of the writer who says, "Tom is 78, yet is still active as a bungee-jumping instructor." Well, perhaps that is noteworthy, but an active gardener, teacher, runner, volunteer? In fact, skip the word "active" since it suggests that it's unusual for an older person to be active. Do not mention age at all unless it is genuinely relevant, and most of the time, it isn't.
Don't patronize or demean older people
Writers should avoid terms such as feisty, spry, sweet, little, feeble, eccentric, senile, grandmotherly, and other similar words. Avoid cutesy phrases such as "He is 80 years young." Don't say "sweetie" when addressing an older woman.
Don't use older people as the butt of a joke. Many people, who no longer find ethnic jokes acceptable, seem indifferent to the effect of jokes about older people. Older people are often accused of being humorless when they object to such jokes. Cracking "old people jokes" in the workplace might even be against age discrimination laws.
Don't reinforce stereotypes of older people
What do you think of when you imagine an older woman or older man? Glamorous Helen Mirren and ageless Sam Elliott? Or cartoon characters such as Abe and Mona, Homer Simpson's parents?
Older people are just as diverse as younger people. They look stylish and dowdy, are jet-setters and bus riders, and they are no more often inflexible than younger people. Some are conservative, and some are, well, wild.
Older adults play tennis, do yoga, bowl, and are couch potatoes. Many older people work past retirement age, while others sail or golf. And they are on Facebook and other social media sites. Facebook has been losing younger people and picking up older ones. Most of FB's recent growth has been from this demographic.
Avoid lumping all older people into any category -- glamorous, active, or frail. They're just people like everyone else and come in a fantastic assortment of looks, styles, and abilities.
What will happen if your organization flips off older people? Well, older donors are likely to avoid you, and, frankly, you won't be considered very up-to-date. We are careful not to stereotype race, gender, or ability. Why would we treat age any differently?