HELP LINE: Elderspeak is not welcome by most

A WHILE BACK I wrote a column on elderspeak — the all too common occurrence of folks (usually younger) addressing elders with “honey/sweetie/dearie,” and all-too-often in a tone of voice that is annoyingly close to baby talk.

Well, evidently I either hit a nerve or stepped into a vat of pent-up irritation, because I’ve heard from plenty of folks on the subject.

While the near-universal sentiment acknowledges that the intent of this misguided familiarity isn’t evil, or meant to be harmful, it doesn’t appear to be particularly appreciated.

Here’s a sample of what I’ve heard from you, at least a few which are appropriate for a family newspaper.

I’ve deleted the names to protect the highly vexed.

Let’s begin with one from a gal who is actually in this field:

“Mark, your Elderspeak column was on target. I am working with ________ now, and I see first-hand how individuals respond to familiarity without their permission.

“Respect, dignity are always appreciated. Thank you for your message.

“I am now 74 and ___ is 82. We try to educate people gently when we are addressed in that manner. I have said, ‘Excuse me, are we related?’ ”

In other words, what makes you think it’s OK to call me that? Good point.

Here’s another, with an even more annoying twist:

“Just read your article on Elderspeak. The act that is most annoying to me is when folks speak to my daughter or my husband with a message indirectly given for my benefit.

“One incident was when we were going to purchase a house and the lady explained to my daughter why a modern electric stove was probably something I wouldn’t be able to use. I was 79 years old at the time. I am now 93 and can still function very well, verbally and physically.

“Oh, yes, people still talk to my daughter and husband, instead of me.”


Well, let’s begin with congratulating the writer on containing (or, at least, censoring) the more colorful language that I suspect was beneath the expressed sentiment, but I think she nailed this one:

When did I become incompetent?

When did I become incapable of adult communication?

And, when, exactly, did I become invisible?


We can only assume that the lady was intending to communicate with the only adults that she perceived were able to grasp her staggeringly complex message and communicate back, secure in the belief that the old lady was too out of it to even know what she was saying. Really?

How overwhelmingly idiotic. You just decided this based on your decades of clinical expertise and insight?

And, on the off chance that there was some validity to the imagined diagnosis, what would lead the lady to conclude that an abysmal lack of respect was warranted?

And, here’s one more, which is really just a Mark thing, not specifically relating to anything the writer said:

In my observation, people (which includes almost all of us) tend to live up to the expectations of the other people around them. If we treat and talk to Mom as though she is “less than” a competent adult, Mom will (over time) live down to that expectation, and we’ll be mystified by Mom’s apparent lack of ability.

In the absence of clearly perceivable symptoms and a diagnosis of “incapacity,” I think this kind of patronization is indefensible, not to mention disrespectful.

“Oops! I didn’t mean that!”

Well, what did you mean?

Think about it, and consider the fact that, with any luck at all, you will be that age someday, so look in the mirror and tell me how that feels.

Calm down, Harvey!


Let’s do one more that’s a bit less … incendiary:

“I’ve found a different take on Elderspeak in reverse. When we older folks call others of the same age or older ‘Young Man’ or ‘Young Lady,’ how does that fit in and why do we do that? Because we are insecure in getting older, or … ?”

I laughed out loud, when I read that: fair point!

Are you implying that we should hold ourselves to the same standard that we seek to impose on them young ’uns?

That, perhaps, we should respect ourselves, if we wish to be respected?

Oh, sure, I could make the obvious observations about members of a group being able to get away with using certain terms with other members of that group, blah blah blah. … Still, point taken: “Be the change you want to see in the world?”


And, maybe, we should all be able to expect respect.

“No harm intended” doesn’t mean that there was no harm.


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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