'Elderspeak' can come across as demeaning

Published10/27/2008 12:04 AM

It can happen unexpectedly. There you are feeling great, even buoyant, if that can be said of a 60-something year old. Then, poof! - that fragile bubble of vitality and vigor is burst by some young pipsqueak calling you sweetie, or giving you a lame pat on the back and an encouraging, "good girl!"

It seems to be going around. A few weeks ago a young clerk looked at me and said, "Hi, sweetie, what can I do for you?"


My mouth dropped open and I blurted out, "What did you just call me? Did you just call me 'sweetie?"

"Oh, I call everyone that," she retorted.

"Well, you don't call me that," I said not too pleasantly. "You don't even know me and believe me, I am not your sweetie."

Women aren't the only targets of such patronizing talk. The other night my husband and I were at a home show looking at products to update our house. When we asked how long a product was guaranteed to last, the salesman smiled at us and said, "Oh, don't worry. It'll last long after you two kids are retired and living in Florida or Arizona."

It's called elderspeak, that seemingly harmless, but sickeningly sweet, patronizing language sometimes used by younger people when speaking to older adults. Some studies have actually found that it can be hazardous to our health.

When I asked a friend if she had experienced such treatment, she answered, emphatically, "Yes, and I hate it. It makes me feel old and incompetent."

Exactly. While a "dear" or "sweetie" addressed to an older person may be thought as benign or even as kindness, in fact, such overly familiar endearments may be sending a message that the older person is, in fact, incompetent.

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It's all about maintaining one's self-esteem while confronting the challenging issues of aging, says Dr. Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, and a leader in the study of aging perceptions. Elderspeak can lead to more negative images of aging that can actually lower rates of survival, Levy explained in an article that appeared earlier this month in the The New York Times.

Levy cited a long-term study published in 2002 that showed that older adults with more positive perceptions of their own aging lived an average of 7 years longer. Comparing 660 participants, researchers found that the correlation between positive perceptions of aging and increased longevity remained after factoring out characteristics such as gender, income, health status and loneliness.

Even patients with Alzheimer's disease react negatively to patronizing language. Health-care experts have long recognized that mentally healthy older adults in hospitals became irritated when staff use a patronizing tone or speak in the third person, such as "Are we ready for our meds?" But experts were unsure if patients with dementia would react negatively to such language.

Kristine Williams of the University of Kansas School of Nursing videotaped interactions between 20 Alzheimer patients and staff members and found that patients with dementia in nursing homes became more aggressive and less cooperative when nurses used phrases like "good girl" or "How are we feeling?"


Levy's study, to be published in The American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias, suggests elderspeak sends a message that the patient is incompetent and "begins a negative downward spiral for older persons, who react with decreased self-esteem, depression, withdrawal and the assumption of dependent behaviors."

Of course, that's not to say that some true words of endearment addressed to older people aren't appreciated. But health-care staff working with older adults need to recognize the far-reaching health benefits of positive communication. Even sales people need to keep in mind that speaking in a patronizing tone to older customers can be offensive.

So be a sweetheart, and remember not to talk down to your elders.

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