Changes in language trigger changes in social perceptions over time, including language addressing aging and older adults. In a study that earned a Bronze 2022 Innovative Research on Aging Award, researchers decided to explore how perceptions of aging and the ways in which older adults are described have changed over time. To examine linguistic changes more concretely, researchers turned to one of the most prevalent sources of social influence in the past ─ print media.
Researchers relied on the Corpus of Historical English (COHA) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COHA) to examine how older adults have been depicted within written text between the years 1810 and 2019. Both sources are historical repositories of texts collected from newspapers, magazines, fiction and non-fiction which together consist of over 250,000 texts. Researchers scoured through the text searching for words and phrases associated with aging and categorized them into two groups. The term age-based framing was used to categorize text that focused on age, such as words like “aged,” “elderly,” and “senior citizen.” The term role-based framing was used to categorize text that focused on older adults’ roles, such as “grandparent,” “retired,” and “mother.” Researchers then identified whether these texts depicted aging and older adults in a negative or positive light.
The text indicated that both types of framing increasingly became negative over time. (Negative age-based framing and role-based framing increased by 15% and 4%, respectively.) However, positive role-based framing also increased over time, from 71% in the 1800s to 89% in the 1900s. These texts have increasingly focused on affection and wisdom. Unlike positive role-based framing, however, positive age-based framing decreased from 82% to 38% within the same time frame.
The researchers highlight literature indicating that life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy have steadily increased since the 1950s and that new phrases have emerged to make people optimistic about aging, such as the phrase “60 is the new 40.” They ultimately argue that, rather than age-based language, role-based language should increasingly be used to describe aging and older adults so that social perceptions towards this population become more favorable.
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