Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Elderspeak: Of Sweeties and Slurs

I've never really understood the need to infantilize elders in our society. This new study explores the world of "elderspeak" and its very real health effects on the aged.
Professionals call it elderspeak, the sweetly belittling form of address that has always rankled older people: the doctor who talks to their child rather than to them about their health; the store clerk who assumes that an older person does not know how to work a computer, or needs to be addressed slowly or in a loud voice. Then there are those who address any elderly person as “dear.”

Now studies are finding that the insults can have health consequences, especially if people mutely accept the attitudes behind them, said Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, who studies the health effects of such messages on elderly people.

In a long-term survey of 660 people over age 50 in a small Ohio town, published in 2002, Dr. Levy and her fellow researchers found that those who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer, a bigger increase than that associated with exercising or not smoking. The findings held up even when the researchers controlled for differences in the participants’ health conditions.

The researchers, who will publish their findings in The American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, concluded that elderspeak sent a message that the patient was incompetent and “begins a negative downward spiral for older persons, who react with decreased self-esteem, depression, withdrawal and the assumption of dependent behaviors.”
I'm not sure there is anything more grating than listening to some health care professional refer to elderly patients in the hospital or in nursing homes as "sweetie" and "hun" or being a "good girl" or boy. Yuck.

And the "faux familiarity" which one interviewee discusses (the need to refer to the elderly by their first name as a way of dislodging them from position of authority or responsibility) is also discussed. I hear this often too. When pre-school age kids call their teachers "Miss Bethany," that's fine, but when adults refer to elders in our society as "Miss Jane" or "Mister Todd," we simply infantilize them even more.

My favorite retort to all this, however, comes at the end of the article.
Ellen Kirschman, 68, a police psychologist in Northern California, said she objected to people calling her “young lady,” which she called “mocking and disingenuous.” She added: “As I get older, I don’t want to be recognized for my age. I want to be recognized for my accomplishments, for my wisdom.”

To avoid stereotyping, Ms. Kirschman said, she often sprinkles her conversation with profanities when she is among people who do not know her. “That makes them think, This is someone to be reckoned with,” she said. “A little sharpness seems to help.”
Heh. Nothing upsets the apple cart of babyish behavior quite like "granny" dropping an f-bomb into the middle of conversation, right?

With millions of Baby Boomers entering retirement as we speak, we're only beginning to understand social gerontology and the effects of ageism on our elders.

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