ICAA’s Guidelines for effective communication with older adults


1. Basic language and imagery strategies


Avoiding bias in language is always a good practice. Negative stereotypes exist of people solely because of gender, ethnicity, age, religion and other blind categorizations. The stereotypes promote prejudice rather than explain behaviors.


Ageism refers to discrimination against persons because of their age, and implies the tendency to regard older people as unworthy and debilitated.


Avoiding ageist stereotypes in language is in the best interests of consumers and professionals because:

  • Ageist stereotypes by their nature are inaccurate.

  • Stereotypes offend the populations you are attempting to reach, thus negating your message.

  • Ageist language promotes cultural bias against older adults, which is counterproductive.

  • No one can say when a person becomes “old.”

  • Age alone does not describe a person, behavior or action.

It’s no surprise that there are so many questions being asked about what to call people who are over 45 years old, and that there are as many opinions on the topic as there are about politics. Our society craves sound bites to describe large and complex concepts, and seeks a single word or phrase to convey substantial meaning.


Is there a single word or phrase to describe the population of people 45 or 50 years and older? The short answer is, no. There is no single word or phrase that can possibly describe the diversity of the 40.2 million people ages 65 and older (2010) and the 55.2 million people ages 50-64 years old (2008) living in the US, or the millions living in every other country.


Life expectancy is increasing, which means that within the population of people 50 years and older, there are arguably five generations. Gerontologists may refer to these generations as middle age (45 to 64 years), young-old (65 to 74 years), middle-old (75 to 84 years), old-old (85 to 99 years) and oldest-old (100 years or more). A generation, or age cohort, is simply the group of people who share the same birth years. Clearly, each generation will have different values and perspectives because each is composed of individuals who are guided by heredity, culture, political events and many other influences besides year of birth.


Multiple professional organizations have sought to examine the stereotypes of older ages and recommend approaches that avoid perpetrating ageist language and imagery. Style guides from The Associated Press and American Psychological Association and The Chicago Manual of Style state that stereotypes of any person based on age, gender, ethnicity, religion or other supposed descriptor should be avoided. This admonition is part of the codes of ethics of journalism societies, the American Marketing Association and many newspapers.


In reporting on older adults, or developing marketing messages, unconscious attributes of ageism can appear despite the best of intentions. It is appropriate to pause and consider unconscious stereotypes on the part of the writer, including a potential bias of omitting key groups or people because of a stereotype.

The International Council on Active Aging has reviewed guidelines published by other organizations, searched language guides and tapped the opinions and recommendations of leading experts in active aging. The consensus of the individuals and organizations who work directly with older adults of all ages and cultures, are gathered here to help you choose the wording and messages that will best reach your audience.


Next: Guiding principles


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