In a society that values youth above age, it’s all too easy to accept a defeatist view about getting older. You assume that along with some wrinkles, gray hair, and loss of hair that you’ll also be less able to hold your own in the mental sphere. Making matters worse is the fact that people start treating you as less capable the older your appearance suggests you are. Because age is associated with loss of mental agility, people talk to older adults in terms more appropriate for a young child or baby than a mature adult. “Honey,” murmurs the dental hygienist, “could you turn your head a little toward me?”

A self-fulfilling prophecy develops in which an older adult, being treated like a child, begins to behave as one. Loss of independence leads to loss of dignity and further, unnecessary, declines ensue.

The specific term for the patronizing speech inappropriately used with older adults is “elderspeak.” In elderspeak, you talk to older adults in terms that reduce them to childlike status. Additionally, you refer to them in terms meant to be complementary, such as “cute,” “adorable,” and “sweet,” which have the opposite effect because it leads them to feel like children. Think about that patronizing dental hygienist. When people talk to you that way, it might eventually make you wonder whether you really are a grownup. Maybe you really can’t do things for yourself.

Being treated as young, then, can actually make you behave in ways that inadvertently cause you to lose your mental acuity. Is there a way to avoid or fend off these ageist, patronizing messages?

Massey University’s Craig Fowler and colleagues (2015) proposed that the key to successful aging, in which you operate at your peak capacity throughout your later years, is to be able to craft your own aging environment. Fowler and his team proposed the “Communication Ecology Model of Successful Aging (CEMSA)” as a way to understand how we can fight off the stereotypes that can accelerate the aging process and keep us from realizing our fullest potential throughout life.

According to the CEMSA, coping with the aging process is a matter of “proactive coping,” in which we create the environments in which we can age most successfully. These are the 7 ways we create our own positive aging contexts:

1. Express optimism about the aging process: There is now solid research evidence showing that an optimistic attitude about aging can actually contribute to living longer, much of it based on Yale University’s Becca Levy discovery of lower mortality among the older adults she studied who had positive views about themselves and their prospects as they age.

2. Avoid the tendency to self-categorize yourself as old, or attributing your behavior to old age: This is the infamous “senior moment,” in which you blame aging for the kind of mistake or memory slip that could happen to anyone. Not only does this cause you to, perhaps prematurely, label yourself as old, but it can lead others to treat you negatively, reinforcing their tendency to treat you in patronizing ways.

3. Don’t categorize and tease others about their age: Have you ever sent an ageist greeting card? Without realizing it, there’s a good chance that the birthday wishes you sent, in an effort to be humorous, actually reinforced the negative stereotypes in yourself and those you’re attempting to celebrate.

4. Plan for your future care needs: Don’t be afraid to think about, and get ready for, the changes that might affect your life as you age. This may seem counter to the idea of optimism but, on the contrary, by being willing to confront reality, you’ll be able to tap more effectively into proactive coping.

5. Use emerging communication technologies: How many times have you heard a middle-aged or older person complain about the horrors of technology? That they’d be happier with a flip phone than with the newest entry into the smartphone market? Whether they feel this way or not, and chances are they don’t (given how many use older adults Internet and social media), but by articulating this position, they sell themselves short.

6. Manage being the recipient of ageism: You don’t have to attack those who mock your age, but you can help others see the folly of their ways. You can also manage your own feelings about being subjected to ageism by recognizing that, even though irritating, these messages don’t have to define you.

7. Resist giving into attempts to be swayed by peddlers of anti-aging products: If you’re unhappy with the idea of getting older, you’ll be far more vulnerable to advertisers who try to sway you to invest your hard-earned dollars into their questionably effective products. The more you push back from these efforts, the more likely you will be to accept the effects of aging without becoming despondent.

To test the CEMSA, Fowler and his colleagues surveyed a sample of 458 middle-aged and older individuals in New Zealand to rate themselves on these 7 strategies. The findings showed that talking optimistically about aging was related to more positive affect and greater confidence in being able to manage the own aging process. Using communication technology and planning for care were also significantly related to positive outcomes. The other 4 strategies did not pan out as being significant predictors of successful aging, but the authors still maintain that the model will ultimately prove to have validity once they can further refine the scales and follow people over time instead of capturing them in a one-shot survey.

The CEMSA approach appears, despite this study’s failure to provide strong support, certainly fits with the findings of many other studies on aging. It provides a road map for you to help find a way out of the ageism trap and to thrive in the decades ahead.


Fowler, C., Gasiorek, J., & Giles, H. (2015). The role of communication in aging well: Introducing the communicative ecology model of successful aging. Communication Monographs, 82(4), 431–457. doi:10.1080/03637751.2015.1024701

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