Letter of the week: Labels like 'silver tsunami' reinforce ageism

Elderly people wearing face masks near the bus stop at People's Park Complex on June 15, 2021. PHOTO: ST FILE

I wish to point out a myth perpetuated by the term "silver tsunami" (A 'silver tsunami' looms. What can Singapore do about it?, June 27).

First, it is more accurate to describe the ageing population as a tidal wave rather than a tsunami.

A tsunami is typically caused by sudden shifts in tectonic plates causing a vertical displacement of a large mass of water. Our changing demography is hardly sudden; it is a result of forces over time.

Demographers have been sounding the alarm bells for decades. The ageing population phenomenon more closely resembles an event caused by waves, the result of the demographic forces of a declining birth rate and longer life expectancy.

How we frame an issue will shape the narrative moving forward. Words are important because they evoke associated imagery and ideas. Nobody would associate a tsunami with something positive. Negative labels like "silver tsunami" reinforce ageism.

Ageism refers to how we think (stereotypes), feel (prejudice) and act (discrimination) towards others or ourselves based on age. Ageism matters because it affects everyone.

Everyone grows old.

Experts have suggested solutions that include encouraging our seniors to live, work, learn and play longer, but change must start somewhere.

It must begin with changing the mindsets of our policymakers, employers, educators and individual seniors themselves. And mindsets are shaped by the language we use.

According to a report by FrameWorks Institute, we need strategies for disrupting the public's mental modelling of older adults as a group set apart.

Our reframing efforts must enable people to see ageing as a continuous and normal process, not an anomalous event like a tsunami.

Tristan Gwee
President Gerontological Society

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