NANAS Online Symposium

NANAS Online Symposium 2021

Contested Language and the Study of Later Life



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All times are Eastern Standard Time.



Thursday, November 18

Is It Time to Get Rid of ‘Population' in Aging Research?

Stephen Katz, Professor (Emeritus), Department of Sociology and Trent Centre for Aging & Society, Trent University, Peterborough, Canada

Since the nineteenth century, the political and professional making of the ‘aging’ or ‘elderly’ population has resulted in a binding of the gerontological imagination to the terms of demographic discourse. In particular, the statistical and naturalizing vocabularies of dependency ratios, median ages, and mortality rates, along with foreboding images of population pyramids and longevity projections, have fueled ongoing apocalyptic narratives of menacing futures of inter-generational conflict. But moreso, such language, while politically dividing and objectifying older people as a homogenously governable entity, has also created the older population itself as a modern form of life, with its own laws of propagation, (un)productivity, health, longevity, economics, and human value. In this case, Demography is a performative language, enlivening what it measures as equivalents. This presentation interrogates the assembling of populational older life, with its Malthusian overtones, and, looking to critical gerontological, feminist, and posthumanist sources, argues for different strategic terms that more responsibly capture the diversity of older people, while loosening them from the static and alienating designs of historical demographic representations. For example, recent ideas about ‘making kin' (Clarke & Haraway, 2018) or Geontologies (Povinelli, 2016) suggest a rethinking of Euro-Western and hetero-patriarchal populational maps of life and their violent imposition on all forms of existence, offering more relational, ecological, and decolonizing perspectives in their place. Discussion explores how useful such terms might be for talking about and conceiving caring, livable, inclusive, and cooperative aging futures outside of population, without reinstating the ageist presumptions of conventional demographic discourse.




Do We Need a New Language to Name the Intersections of Ageism, Racism, and Misogyny?

Corinne Field, University of Virginia

In 1969 when Robert Butler coined the term "age-ism," he compared age prejudice to the "familiar" dynamics of racism and sexism. In this presentation, I will argue that this foundational analogy continues to encourage comparative thinking that disaggregates old age—implicitly defined by the experiences of working- or middle-class white men— from race—a category normed around young Black men—and gender—equated with white wives and mothers. Feminist age theorists argue that we instead need to


understand how these forms of discrimination are mutually constituted. They have employed anti-racist, decolonial, feminist, and queer methodologies to decenter whiteness and maleness in the study of old age. And, yet we still lack a clear language to name the intersectional dynamics of ageism that position people differently based on their gender, race, or class, intersections that cannot be disaggregated experientially or analytically. Further, we need to understand how ageism operates in ways distinct from racism or sexism, most importantly in the temporal dimension that shifts people's experience of age prejudice and discrimination over the course of life. In this paper, I will seek to spark a conversation about how we might better refine our use of ageism as a heuristic that can clarify the intersectional experiences of old people.

To do this, I will explore recent developments in Black feminist theory that, while not mentioning old age or old people, offer some strategies for moving forward. First, I will review articulations of racialized gender by Saidiya Hartman, Hortense Spillers, and others who argue that the category "woman" must be separated from white, middle- class norms to account for the distinct experiences of Black women. This mode of thinking opens possibilities for theorizing racialized formations of older womanhood.

Second, I will consider Moya Bailey's coining of the term "misogynoir" to refer to the combined force of misogyny and anti-Black racism, a form of prejudice distinct from either racism, as directed at Black men, or misogyny, as targeted at white women. I will ask if there might be succinct ways to name the intersection of anti-Blackness, misogyny, and ageism and what these new terms might be. Without offering a definitive answer, I hope to spark a conversation about how we might hone our uses of ageism as a key concept in age studies.



A Literary History of “Decaying” Bodymind and The Question of Racist Aging


June Oh, Michigan State University


This paper addresses the history of language that lies at the crux of ageism, that is, the myth that aging is a process of both physical and mental “decay.” It turns to the long eighteenth century when derogatory terms that highlight the proximity between the body and the mind such as senile, senility, and senescence all came into existence. Tracing the unique interplay between literature and developing Enlightenment medical understanding of the human body, I show an epochal shift in the language and narrativization of growing old that effectively changed what aging meant for the broader culture. In addition, I bring race into discourse to raise key questions about how certain kinds of aging were not allowed for colonial subjects, arguing that “decaying” bodymind was also a privilege that seldom extended beyond the category of white, abled, western man. Ultimately, this paper reveals how our modern language and theorization of aging as decline is rooted in long-standing controversies over defining the boundary of “human.”


June Oh is a Ph.D. candidate in Department of English at Michigan State University. Her research interests lie in age studies, long 18th century British literature, medical humanities, and digital humanities. As a BIPOC woman, she is committed to bringing aging body and mind into discourse as it intersects with racism, sexism, classicism, and ableism in the historical past as well as our present time.



Friday, November 19

A Diachronic Perspective on Referencing Practices in Dementia-Related Academic Discourse

Birte Bös (University of Duisburg-Essen) and Carolin Schneider (Utrecht University)

In the past years, linguistic practices of referring to people living with dementia have received increasing attention. Persons living with dementia themselves (e.g. Swaffer 2014) have drawn attention to the devastating effects of linguistic stigmatisation and suggested non-stigmatising forms of reference, which were also summarised in guides for positive, person-first language published by many non-profit health organisation (cf.

e.g. Pinkowitz and Love 2015; 2018). Clearly, there is also an increasing awareness among researchers, many of whom have adopted non- stigmatising forms, and, of course, among linguists, who have investigated those referencing practices (cf. e.g. Bailey et al 2019; Bös and Schneider forthc.).

This study is interested in how referencing practices have changed in academic discourse over the past four decades, based on data from a corpus of articles from a major academic journal, Aging & Society. Combining corpus-pragmatic methods and critical discourse analysis (cf. Baker et al 2008), this paper outlines the quantitative diachrony of major forms of reference to persons living with dementia and explores qualitative aspects of the referencing practices observed. While there has been a clear trend towards person-first language, particularly in the past decade, there have remained only few traces of victimisation common in the earlier issues. It is probably not surprising that somatisation, here reference to the dysfunctionalities associated with dementia, still features quite prominently in academic discourse, and might need reconsideration due to its objectifying effects (Reisigl and Wodak 2001: 49, 53).



References: (2018), Positive Language. An Alzheimer’s Society Guide to Talking about Dementia. 09/Positive%20language%20guide_0.pdf (last accessed 24/05/2021).

Bailey, A., T. Dening, K. Harvey (2019), Battles and breakthroughs: representations of dementia in the British press. Aging & Society, 1--15.


Baker, P., C. Gabrielatos, M. KhosraviNik, M. Krzy┼╝anowski, T. McEnery, R. Wodak (2008), “A useful methodological synergy? Combining critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to examine discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press.” Discourse & Society 19(3): 273–306.

Bös, B.; C. Schneider (forthc.), ‘Typing with dementia’ – Online Self-positioning of People Living with Dementia, Journal of Interactional Research in Communication Disorders

Pinkowitz, J.; K. Love (eds) (2015), Living Fully with Dementia: Words Matter. Dementia Action Alliance. Falls Church, VA. (last accessed 24/05/2021).

Reisigl, M, R. Wodak (2001), Discourse and Discrimination. Rhetorics of Racism and Antisemitism. London/New York: Routledge.

Swaffer, K. (2014), 20 things NOT to say or do to a person with dementia. dementia/ (last accessed 24/05/2021).

Birte Bös is Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. Her research interests include synchronic and diachronic pragmatics, discourse analysis and media linguistics. She has investigated the communicative practices in historical and modern media, from historical news discourse to modern social media. Together with Carolin Schneider, she explores discourses with and about dementia.

Carolin Schneider is a lecturer at the Department of Languages, Literature and Communication at Utrecht University. Her research areas include multilingualism, (critical) discourse analysis and interpersonal pragmatics in online and offline contexts. She primarily investigates discourses with and about dementia. Her PhD-thesis explores how bilinguals living with Alzheimer's dementia draw on their linguistic repertoires in conversations.



“Abuelos”, “Viejos” y “Personas de Edad” Among Other Ways of Naming Older Adults in Spanish. Implications for Addressing Ageism in Everyday Life, Research, and Public Policy.


Gustavo Padilla, School of Psychology, CETYS Universidad, Tijuana, Mexico


To analyze the words used to name older adults is to examine both, the meanings attributed to the processes of aging, and the location of older adults in the social structure. This is relevant for the Spanish language, where there seems to be a struggle to name older adults in formal and informal contexts. In recent years, the euphemistic

term “personas de edad” (literally “persons of age”, an attempt to equate terms such as “older persons” or “personnes âgées”) started to appear in official reports, replacing


terms used until recently that are now deemed pejorative, such as “anciano” or “viejo”, as well as other words that aimed to reduce the negative connotations traditionally adhered to old age, but are imprecise, such as “abuelos” (“grandparents”, although

literally “grandfathers” due to the gendered structure of the Spanish language). Yet, the term “personas de edad” only partially solves the problem as it carries the fundamental imprecision of rendering age as something exclusively acquired in later life. In Spanish, there is only one word, envejecer, to refer to both, aging, and becoming old. Children don’t “have” age and they don’t “age” as a process. Children don’t “e nvejecen” but “crecen” (grow). This means that in Spanish to grow and to become old are not only separate but also excluding, carrying the notion that there are no opportunities for development or growth in older adulthood.


Nonetheless, by representing age as an exclusive characteristic of older adults (“personas de edad”), the social observation is that older adults belong in the otherness. An implicit notion of exclusion from what is understood as neutral: being young, not having age (as if there was a possibility of not having age, like

ethnicity, or social class), shaping the ways in which older adulthood is perceived and experienced. Those representations also shape public interest. To share some examples from Mexico, a vast majority of the social research conducted about old age focuses exclusively on older adults living in social adversity, or are demographic reports, or biomarker profiles. The Secretariat of Health of Mexico publishes “gerontological guidelines” addressing physical and cognitive impairment, with no specification that they are aimed at individuals with disabilities, but directed at individuals whose only shared characteristic is their age despite disability having been estimated at 20% in people over 60 in 2020. On the other hand, there have been a few attempts to challenge those assumptions. For example, Klein (2016, 2013) has coined the terms “adultez posmayor” (“post-older adulthood”), “viejos no viejos” (“old not old”), and “paradigmas ambiguos de la vejez (“ambiguous paradigms of aging”) to capture the rejection of older adults themselves of the traditional ways of representing later life. All of this is evidence that old age has remained a diffuse social category throughout history and social contexts, and that the development of heterogeneity in older adulthood in recent decades has increased the need for developing analytic categories and terms to name a population imagined as almost exclusively as frail.


Gustavo M Padilla is Professor of Social Gerontology in the School of Psychology, CETYS Universidad, Tijuana. His interests revolve around the intersection of social elements of aging and the subjective experiences of older people, currently focusing on the topics of work and retirement in old age. A Doctor of Social Science with a background in Psychology, Gustavo has previously worked in the field of suicide prevention.



Never Use the “a” Word’: Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s Little Red and Other Stories and the New Narratives of Ageing.


Zuzanna Sanches, Departamento dos Estudos Anglísticos, Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa



The Irish writer Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s Little Red and Other Stories is a panoramic view of ageing, illness and dementia across cultural and linguistic boundaries. It shows us that even though we may be divided by geographical and cultural frontiers challenges stemming from the languages we use are both centripetal and centrifugal. As such, our linguistic proficiency is shaped by the external cultural narratives and the vocabulary

that is culturally and politically “available to us”, as well as by our internal drive to communicate, to express ourselves and to experiment with the new means of social interaction.


Little Red and Other Stories’s opening eponymous narrative Little Red is a display of metatextuality that through the words deployed to describe ageing and older women in particular, shows the reader a world full of bias and gender intolerance against the ageing population. Intolerance that depletes, diminishes and takes away agency. “Little Red”’s main character, 64-year-old Fiona is in the middle of a life crisis, recently left by the husband of 30 years for a younger woman, and now re-establishing herself as an independent agent of her new life. At the same time, she is adjusting to the internal and external challenges of ageing that we as readers and Fiona as the subject of her narrative, construct through words, the language we use on everyday basis and the a-word. It is also through the use of new words and symbols that Fiona, an avid

reader and public speaker, gains agency over the other: her family, other ageing people she randomly meets, and above all her new romantic partners, representatives of the dominant culture: the men. To Fiona, communicating with men, through messages either of long sentences or of symbols is a new experience of empowerment. She winks at men with emojis, waves at them and is bold to use the communication tools once only available to the opposite gender and above all, it is her who takes the initiative to

talk and to let men “in”. She also learns that using the culturally embedded a-word would inevitably present ageing as antonymous to beautiful, independent and desirable, so that she rewrites narratives she uses. She even tells a different version of the classic tale Red Riding Hood, where there is a totally unexpected new ending.

In the paper, we will look at the narratives of ageing, the constructive potential that language gives us in contributing to a greater life quality of older people. We will analyze the richness of vocabulary at our disposal and different tools of communication that can be used by the heterogenous ageing community. The main thesis of this presentation will be that ageing is linguistically and culturally vibrant, it can be inexhaustibly productive and able to queer the established fallacies of the a-word.



Tomorrow’s Best Agers: Superheroes and Successful Aging


Ruth Gehrmann, Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz, Germany


The labels "old" and "young" map a spectrum of aging and hold the potential to function as markers for exclusion. Yet, how can the relationship between being labelled "old" and chronological age be determined and if, as Gullette reminds us, we are aged by culture, how does the label "old" determine social roles? Showcasing this interest in the linguistic marker of "old", my talk presents the disconnect between chronological and cultural age by the example of Captain America. After being frozen after World War II and coming back to life in the 21st century, Captain America, a.k.a Steve Rogers, is repeatedly called old by his fellow Avenger Iron Man, a.k.a Tony Stark. This labelling is particularly striking: Firstly, Steve has not lived as long as other Avengers. Thor’s chronological age, for instance, is much higher, yet as a god he defies the human label of "old" and is not stigmatized accordingly. Secondly, Steve does not present any signs of physical aging – on the contrary, the franchise showcases his able and overly masculine body. The label "old", then, appears as a stigma, playfully used to undermine Steve's authority. Hereby, Stark reveals a key role of the term: it is incompatable with notions of the powerful – and in extension young – superhero. On the one hand, calling Steve old ultimately aims at deligetimizing Captain America's claim on leadership. Yet on the other, these attempts of ridicule also illlustrate that Steve’srole as "old" coincides with a set of specific responsibilities as he is, in effect, the Avengers' leader and functions as the group's conscience. In conclusion, my talk navigates the label of "old" beyond its denotation of chronological age and emphasizes its potential to stigmatize and exclude but also to award the role of the group's elder.


Ruth Gehrmann holds an M.A. in English and American Studies from the University of Augsburg, Germany and has just defended her doctoral thesis “Future T/Issues: An Analysis of Organ Transplantation in Medical and Literary Narratives” at Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz, Germany. She is invested in bringing medical and literary narratives into conversation and has been a visiting scholar at the “Program in Narrative Medicine” at Columbia University in New York. Ruth is also interested in popular culture and has published on Indigenous young adult fiction. Recently, she has started as a postdoctoral researcher at the Collaborative Research Center on "Human Differentiation" located at Mainz, Germany where she analyzes strategies of successful aging.