Can We Replace Ageist Attitudes?

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us. Or maybe they do, and we’re so accustomed to using them that we don’t notice the damage done.

One of the trickier culprits is ageism and how we communicate with geriatric patients. This article explains why ageism isn’t good for anyone and should remind us to be thoughtful when selecting our words and treatment tasks. So how can we keep ageist talk and attitudes out of our rehab departments?


Occupational therapist Shelly Hefner has worked with the geriatric population for nine years and offers these recommendations:

  • When assessing prior level of function, ask, “Do you,” instead of, “Do you still.”
  • Don’t talk down. Never start with the assumption they won’t understand.
  • Speak in a normal voice, not a high-pitched tone.
  • Always address the patient by their name, not “Honey” or “Sweetie,” and don’t refer to them as “cute” or “adorable.”


“When working with patients of any age, listen to what they have to say and be respectful of their preferences and opinions,” Shelly says. “Focus on the functional deficits and abilities of the patient, not their age. Be creative and thoughtful with your interventions and the tools you use.”

Shelly offers this example:

“Often when working on improving fine-motor coordination, therapists use a peg board. Although we as therapists see the benefits of this task (addressing fine-motor control, hand-eye coordination, bilateral upper extremity integration, in-hand manipulation, reaching, etc.), some geriatric patients may interpret it as a child’s task. Instead, ask the patient what their interests are. Maybe they enjoy playing cards. So use a card game, grading the task to make it easier or more difficult as appropriate, to work on some of the same things you would have worked on using the peg board.”

Let’s all speak thoughtfully and be creative in our treatment tasks to create rehab environments where all our patients receive individualized interventions that are free of ageism.



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