HELP LINE: Elderspeak often offends when trying to help

HERE’S AN EMAIL I received the other day.

In addition to the gentleman’s obvious good taste in column-writers, he makes a good point:

“Just wondering if you have ever contemplated why people, mostly clerks and waitresses, start calling us older folks Sweetie, Honey and Dear to name a few?

“And at what age do we qualify for these terms of endearment?

“I’m not offended as some of my friends are, but just got to pondering on the subject and figured you would have some insight on the subject.

“I always enjoy and appreciate your column.”

Here’s what I think:

The other day I was standing in line in a store, immediately behind an elder gentleman, which is how I would characterize myself. He, like I, was waiting to be checked out. He, hopefully like I, didn’t appear confused, disheveled or frail.

When the gentleman’s turn came, the professionally courteous employee immediately increased the volume of her voice, noticeably slowed her speech and, when the time came, said something a lot like, “OK, sweetie, you just slide your card through that little slot …”

I thought he was going to bash her with his bananas, but he didn’t. He just looked down, subtly shaking his head, gathered his purchases and left.

She didn’t call me “sweetie;” but in fairness, the banana-bearing gentleman in question was considerably better looking than I am.

We’ve all seen it and we’ve all heard it and, the fact is, a lot of us do it. And it actually has a name: It’s called elderspeak.

It’s being called “dear” or “honey” by people you’re not that familiar with.

It’s that overly sweet, sing-songy, too-slow-too-simple, repeat-it-again way of talking to someone who, we apparently imagine, isn’t as quick, sharp or … present, as we are.

It has its basis in baby talk, which is where we first heard it and, most likely, learned it, so some of us apply it to the other end of the age spectrum for, I presume, the same reasons.

In fairness, folks often don’t even know they’re doing it — and it’s rarely meant to insult — but it does, or can, because it sends a message: “I don’t think you can keep up with me.”

Wanna bet? Wanna banana upside your head?

You won’t be surprised to learn that this elderspeak dynamic has been studied and studied by a lot of folks with Dr. before their names, and guess what they came up with?

Right: People who are being treated this way and spoken to this way start acting the way they’re being treated.

They do worse on memory and balance tests, have higher levels of stress, actually need more help and actually die sooner.


And, according to these Dr.-driven studies, care to hazard a guess as to who seems to do it the most?

Right. Health care workers — doctors, nurses and folks who work in health care facilities and nursing homes.

And when this was specifically studied in nursing homes, it was discovered that residents with mild-to-moderate dementia were more likely to go off when they were treated this way than if they weren’t.

I wonder why.

Now, again, do these good folks/unwitting perpetrators intend to create harm? Oh, hardly.

The intention is usually to be helpful, caring and considerate — to be familiar — and to help.

Help strikes again.

And, in fairness, not all elders react to it with an instinctive, fruit-based assault.

In fact, one gal in Oregon, specifically interviewed in one of these studies, referred to an underlying warmth, and said, “We’re all reaching across the chasm. If someone calls us ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey,’ it’s not diminishing to us; it’s just their way to connect, in a positive way.”

Good for her.

Another gal, a police psychologist in California who’s dancing around 75 to 80, said she sprinkles her conversation with profanities when she’s among people who don’t know her: “It makes them think, ‘This is someone to be reckoned with.’ ”

I think I like her.

You know the drill when the professional talks to the younger person you’re with instead of you, the waitress talks to your daughter like you were invisible or the one that calls your son “sir” and you “young man”?

Do you just wish you had your bananas handy?

Me, too.

But, obviously, this isn’t a problem for everybody, and I know elders who appreciate it; in fact, I know elders who do it.

So, like most everything else on this planet, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive right way.

But, studies aside, it seems to me that this whole thing comes down to a matter of respect: Do we respect this elder or do we not?

And do we respect them enough to treat them the way we’d like to be treated?

Hmm … sounds like a rule that ought to be golden.

So, that’s where I come down: Unless or until you tell me to call you “sweetie,” I think I’ll defer to calling you “Mrs. Jones” (unless, of course, your name is “Gonzalez”), because respect, like contempt, is earned.

Besides, I have a healthy respect for bananas.


Mark Harvey is director of Clallam/Jefferson Senior Information & Assistance, which operates through the Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He is also a member of the Community Advocates for Rural Elders partnership. He can be reached at 360-452-3221 (Port Angeles-Sequim), 360-385-2552 (Jefferson County) or 360-374-9496 (West End), or by emailing [email protected].

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