Condescension kills

Elbowing its way through the global recession and onto the front page today is a New York Times story about what professionals call “elderspeak – the sweetly belittling form of address that has always rankled older people.”  

It already drives me nuts to be addressed as “young lady”, and “dearie” lurks. This language does more than insult: it reinforces stereotypes of incapacity and incompetence. Unless the “sweeties and “honeys” push back, they internalize these negative images. That, according to Becca Levy of Yale University, leads to poorer health, “including lower rates of survival.” 

Levy’s long-term survey of 660 people over age 50 in a small Ohio town 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.”  That’s a significant testament to the power of positive (or negative) thinking. Mild to moderate dementia confers no immunity.  A separate study conducted in a nursing home showed residents with Alzheimer’s reacting aggressively to infantilizing language.

My favorite insult was reported by Bill Bonner, 69, of Meridian, Idaho, who was recently asked, “Who did you used to be?” Instead of replying “an attorney, judge, social worker, and spiritual guidance counselor,” he tossed the ball back with the response, “I am a human being who cares about others.” Those who haven’t gotten around to retiring will have their snappy answers at the ready.

One thought on “Condescension kills

  1. Half the Letters to the Editor in Sunday’s New York Times applauded this story. Several commented perceptively on the generational underpinnings of "elderspeak."  "I believe that the people who heap these endearments upon us are readting to their own fears of aging in a youth-oriented culture," wrote Constance Kelly. "Let’s understand, however, that we ourselves unconsiously resort to put-downs when we talk about having senior moments or when we joke about failing memories or other diminishing capabilities. Studies have found that comments like these can be self-fulfilling prophecies — and that’s surely worth remembering," chides Ed Grimm. No kidding.  Wising up to our own internalized ageism is the first step in combatting it in the culture at large.

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