Grey Tsunami: A Dangerous Metaphor in Aging Discourse?

Dr.Michael Gordon Michael Gordon, MD, MSc, FRCPC, Medical Program Director, Palliative Care, Baycrest Geriatric Health Care System, Professor of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON.

Physicians are used to using language in very special ways. We combine the normal syntax, grammar and rules of our mother tongue along with the special clinical terms derived from Latin or Greek which are often anglicized in North America. But there are terms used in the English language that we tend to avoid because they have associated with them negative stereotypes about certain groups of individuals and over time, no one would use some of these terms in public. The term tsunami has entered the lexicon recently of terms used to describe the challenges of the aging population. Its use has entered the popular media and amongst policy makers. Physicians must be attuned to the negative stereotype associated with the use of this term to describe the older patients that we collectively care for.
Key Words:Language and negative stereotypes, media use of terms, stigmatizing the elderly with words.


I find this terminology extremely vulgar, as someone who has spent the majority of her career caring for the extreme elderly ( I have 6 times the average for people over 60 and 70 and 80).. I find the Hyvet study to be one of the first NOT to exclude the elderly, this is very sad..If we would study the elderly, we might be very surprised to find that they live longer, "just because they have lived longer". It behooves us to view this population as equal to our younger population in terms of needing proper care and research. I was horrified when in Winnipeg, 2 years ago we had a geriatrician state at the outset of his talk "the average life expectancy of someone in a nursing home to be one year" ..only to be corrected by one of his colleagues that it was actually 2 years... he went on to speak of the elderly, with such a degree of agism and lack of knowledge that I wondered what made him go into geriatrics in the 1st place! If our geriatricians are this mis-informed and prejudiced against the elderly, what are the rest of us supposed to do? For me, I find that my elderly patients, though challenging are the most polite, and gentle of my patients,the most generous in their attitude towards Doctors, as well as respectful of our knowledge. It is a joy to care for them and I do everything I can to make the years they have left the most productive, and pain-free as possible and to keep their brains functioning as best I can. Yes,there will be more of the elderly as the Baby-boomers age...but this is no excuse for us not to care...I secretly am concerned that policies of euthanasia are aimed against our elderly,and that many doctors are just too lazy to do the care that is needed for this portion of our patient population. I just hope I'm wrong.

great article. I agree with everything that has been mentioned in this article. I believe we should do a better job on teaching our future health care professionals about the danger of ageism and its impact on caring for our seniors,