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This Week in Elder News: 11 October 2008

Elderspeak is Damaging to Your Health

[EDITORIAL NOTE: If you have written any blog posts on political issues this week, be sure to get links to me by the end of today for the Sunday Election Issues post. If you're wondering what I'm talking about, see this post.]

category_bug_ageism.gif You’ve read it here before, the story of one of the most demeaning encounters with ageism I’ve personally experienced when a 20-something job interviewer, while patting my forearm, asked: “Tell me your life goals, dearie.”

Young and midlife adults have so many ways of belittling elders with language – in everyday life, in print, on on TV and in the movies – that I’ve written more than a dozen blog posts about it. (Links to some are at the bottom of this story.)

Earlier this week, The New York Times published a story about what is sometimes called “elderspeak” based on a forthcoming study from the estimable Yale University associate professor of psychology, Becca Levy, who for years has been studying the health effects on elders of ageist language.

“’Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging,’ Dr. Levy said. ‘And those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival.’

“In a long-term study 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 and not smoking. The findings held up even when the researchers controlled for differences in the participants’ health conditions.”

In other words, even aging couch potatoes with a two-pack-a-day habit fare better in terms of longevity than their healthier counterparts who succumb to believing the demeaning, cutesy put-downs.

According to nurse gerontologist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Nursing, “Dr. [Kristine] Williams (as documented elsewhere too) members of the healthcare community are among the worst offenders.

“…Dr. Williams and a team of researchers videotaped interactions in a nursing home between 20 residents and staff members. They found that when nurses used phrases like ‘good girl’ or ‘How are we feeling?’ patients were more aggressive and less cooperative or receptive to care. If addressed as infants, some showed their irritation by grimacing, screaming or refusing to do what staff members asked of them…

“She added that patients who reacted aggressively against elderspeak might receive less care.”

Elderspeak is so common, too many – speakers and elders – hardly notice when it occurs. One way to help combat these verbal assaults is to write about them on our blogs when we see or hear them, email objections to reporters and commentators who repeat them, and stop anyone else – sales people, healthcare workers, friends, neighbors, coworkers (and job interviewers) – when they treat us as children or dimwits.

Sixty-eight-year-old police psychologist Ellen Kirschman, quoted in The New York Times story, has a novel and forceful method of countering elderspeak:

“…she objected to people calling her ‘young lady,’ which she called ‘mocking and disingenuous.’

“…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.’”

However we individually choose to confront elderspeak, let’s step up our counterattack on this disrespectfulness and help keep ourselves and other elders healthy.

Some Previous TGB Stories on Elderspeak
Ageism Can Kill
Euphemisms Scheuphemisms
Age Humor
Older = Smarter, And Wiser Too
The Danger of Euphemism
Cast Your Vote in the Old Age Name Game
Why Language Matters
The Words We Use For Elders
Are You Elderly?
Elders As Children

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Stone Riley urges us to believe that Blessings are the very substance of existence.]


Your post calls to mind the comment made to President Ford by Maggie Kuhn when he called her "little lady." Her comeback was something like "Mr. President, I'm not a little lady, I'm an old woman!" Hurray for Maggie. She opened my eyes to the language of ageism. Maggie, a pioneer activist for elders is sorely missed & needs to be replaced. Dee

I have noticed times when I am with my 80 year old father in law and clerks will talk to me as if he isn't there. He can't hear well but other than that he is perfectly able to conduct his business (he was a world traveling executive and engineer) and I do my best to make them defer to him.
Maybe I'll just get ruder about it, that may help teach people a lesson.

Elderspeak, elder expectations. I did a little blog entry on this very subject - stereotyping - a few weeks back when a young IT specialist at work expressed his amazement that I was planning a trip to the apple orchards and actually planned to climb some of the trees to retrieve the biggest and best apples. "You", he exclaimed, "are going to climb trees??? Riiiiiiiggghhht." I was so incensed that I not only climbed the damned trees but had my husband snap some pictures so that I could e-mail them to the doubting Thomas at work. I, too, find that people tend to dismiss older people a bit too quickly, and the only remedy that I can see is to demonstrate that we still have perfectly well-functioning brains and bodies (for our age, that is!)

I used to get that a lot when I was out with my MIL. Total strangers such a pharmacists called her "Dear," and I hated that! A couple of times, I told people: "Her name is Mrs Prior."

I haven't yet been on the receiving end of this but have heard about it and it's too bad more people who do it aren't informed which will take elders doing it when it happens. It is like talking baby talk to a toddler which doesn't help them either.

At the doctor’s office with my mother several years ago,I finally got fed up and said rather loudly in a waiting room filled with old people after one such exchange, “Mom, do you like being called dearie and sweetie?” Unfortunately, she was not happy with me either that day.
I enjoyed reading Ms. Kirschman’s article in the NYT’s.

I can identify with Zuleme's father-in-law. Having a severe hearing loss resulted in being treated like I was either a dimwit or unimportant. I have written about this before and it is humiliating and maddening.

Young clerks are the worst offenders and I want to tell them off. I am not very aggressive and I would have felt better if I had come up with a clever one liner that would have made them aware of just how offensive they were.

I have been called 'young lady' several times and I think the person who does so thinks they are complimenting me. Motive might play into that phrase.

Where in our society do people learn the language of respect for Elders? Certainly not from the youth-saturated media. Certainly not from the attitudes that the general culture fosters toward Elders.

I have a bit (just a bit) of sympathy for the 20-somethings who have been brought up to regard the Elderly as doddering old fools. They have no vocabulary or store of experience with the Elderly at any level. All they can do is to fall back on the insulting, demeaning, disrespectful words and attitudes they have been taught. Certainly, respectful language is available to any thoughtful person, but how many people would you characterize as thoughtful?

I do not see any of this changing without a Civil-Rights-level movement against agism in all its perfidious colors. I wonder how many of the millions of Baby Boomers will put up with the condescension, the patronizing of current ageist behavior in the years to come?

Maybe the time is right for such a movement, but it will be a long, uphill battle against half a century's discounting of the Elderly by Madison Avenue, the media, and the culture in general.

I had a routine chest Xray last week as part of a pre op physical in preperation for arthroscopic surgery of my knee which has a meniscis tear.

The Xray tech, about 40 years old female, called me "young lady" twice. This irrates me. I know I am not young although I am SURE I am a LADY!!

I don't want to curse so I am trying to think of a way to correct someone when they use these demeaning names.

My husband said to tell her my name and say " I prefer you use my name instead of "young lady"

Here in the heartland, folks call each other "Darlin'" a lot and I'm never upset. In fact when the cute blonde at the check-out calls me "darlin'" it just makes my day!
It's all about "Who's saying what to whom and why"

Absolutely fascinating. "Dearie," indeed not in my case. Now that I don't smoke and do exercise, I'll add thinking positive. I believe in the power of positive thinking.

There are so many ways to demean people. Bigger, more powerful people do it to those who are less powerful.
In an age segregated society, younger people do not always respect the wisdom of the aged who are set aside in retirement and care centers.

I remember my mother never talking baby-talk to little children because she thought it was demeaning. She respected everyone equally.

Women have often been disrespected because they are the so-called "weaker sex." Old people are lumped into a category of less able and less a part of the mainstream.

I personally bristle at being called "honey" and "dearie" or being told that all my aches and pains are because I am old. I know young children with aches and pains but they are not shunted to the side and disregarded because they are young.

We must find a way to integrate the older people in our society once more by stopping this segregated housing and expecting older people to retire and be invisible after a certain age.

My husband needs full care and I have been supervising his care with the help of health aides. One is a Maasai warrior from Kenya. He respects the elderly and calls my husband a Maasai warrior who is strong. It is wonderful to be respected and cherished for the years we have spent on earth.

This Maasai helper says that if my husband were in Kenya in Maasai country he would be surrounded by young people listening to his stories.

Let's start a movement to bring back the wisdom of our elders in this country and stop considering them "over the hill." We need all ages interacting to bring back human dignity to our society.

The phrase "He/she is (60/70/80, etc.) years young" makes me bristle too.
I had an experience in the grocery store recently. I bought a six-pack of beer and when I got to the cashier, who might have been 19 or 20, she asked to see my ID. I just stared at her for a few seconds and asked her if she was joking. She wasn't. So, I told her loudly that anyone who was too stupid to tell the difference between an older person and a younger person should never be a cashier. Then, I basically stormed out leaving the beer there. Really pissed me off.
Thanks for letting me vent. This is a great site.

Hello Ronnie,

With the utmost respect for you personally...I have wanted to ask a question of you since first encountering your wonderful blog ...and this comes as honest inquiry...not as hidden criticism.

You speak so frequently about the serious and deliterious effects of aegism, especially when it comes to "elderspeak". Now here's the question...isn't it a form of aegist elderspeak when you so frequently speak directly about yourself as... "Crabby Old Lady"?

Whilst indeed at any point in time you may indeed be feeling some sort of emotional discomfort (crabby)...and you ARE a woman of a certain age (but what exactly is old anyway?)...and of course you are a Lady (by reason of genetics and polite upbringing)...but referring to yourself as Crabby Old Lady seems to fly in the face of your writings in this article on aegism and elderspeak...and I quote you..."from the estimable Yale University associate professor of psychology, Becca Levy, who for years has been studying the health effects on elders of ageist language ...Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging,’ Dr. Levy said. ‘And those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival.

In a long-term study 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 and not smoking."

Is seeing or describing yourself as a "Crabby Old Lady" a positive perception...and one that you want to model to the thousands of elders and non-elders alike who frequent your blog? You of course have the "Right" to call yourself anything you like...but is it a wise and skillful choice...for both you and your readers? In all honesty, I for one cringe every time I read you referring to yourself as such. I both respect and indeed care for you as a person...and I would never wish on you the negativity of the mantle of Crabby Old Lady...I would empower you instead...as....Bold, Powerful Uber Woman. Capable of taking on Life...all of it...with a mighty new self-label...I AM WOMAN...AND LOOK OUT...YOU'RE GOING TO HEAR ME ROAR ! ! !

That is exactly how I see you, and indeed it is how I experience you thru your writing. Couldn't it indeed be that this is more truely who you are?

With Great Metta to You...Love and Respect


I think if I hear one more person call me young lady I will suggest they have their vision checked.

It's a joke, Sophia, which allows me to express my congenital dissatisfaction with many things in life - which seem to grow in number by the day.

Also, it's fun to write in the third person sometimes.

Mostly, I let Crabby Old Lady loose when I am majorly pissed off or when what I'm pissed off about is too petty to admit to myself.

But it's not like I'm fooling anyone nor intend to do so. People who are regular readers know Crabby and I are one and same.

I'm not sure I'm a "lady," but that's part of the long-time, common phrase and I am female. I am old (67) and I am crabby. So it fits and in the context here, I don't believe it is denigrating to me or anyone else.

However, anyone who wishes to is welcome to view me as "bold, powerful uberwoman." Many people abide in me and Crabby Old Lady is only one.

I always enjoy what you write about the significance of language and what each of us can do to change ageism perceptions. We can easily and nicely correct those who use demeaning ageist language with us simply by bringing the offending words to the speaker's attention. While language has serious ramifications we can have constructive fun making our point and keep our blood pressure low.

I think in most instances a positive approach to the issue is better than a combative one to facilitate a favorable long term change in the words people use. Ageist language is so embedded in our culture that many people who use it don't really intend to be offensive, they've just never had anyone tell them it is in such a way they can empathize. Moving from the north to the south as a young girl I noticed such endearing type words were a cultural behavior used by many with most others whatever their age or gender.

Attacking the speaker fosters defensiveness, resentment, anger and a greater probability they'll continue using such language just on general principal. What we really want is for people to think about the common sense of our request and to create a desire in them to please us and others by using more acceptable words.

Yeah, in my healthcare work I often have to redirect loving family members and friends to speak directly to their loved ones and not over the loved ones head directly to me as though the person wasn't even present. I say, "Ask him/her." I can always augment as needed.

I note many nursing staff at various levels are from other countries and/or cultures. One group considers calling an older woman "Mama" or some other mother word very respectful and some of those for whom they care want to be called thusly. An outsider overhearing this might think it was offensive as I did initially, but I actually asked the patient for their opinion and they loved it. The bottom line is to establish with people what they want to be called, otherwise it's Mr., Mrs., Ms, or often first names.

I believe efforts to change language that is used has a significant influence on attitudes toward aging over time. This is a laudable goal in which we are the base on which the desired change can build through the generations if we act in daily life. Time is what it will take with each of us taking such actions to combat ageism just as you describe.

I just had a thought, maybe we should print business-type education cards with a brief positive pleasant message briefly suggesting words preferred over ageist ones. We just distribute them when the situation warrants everywhere we go to create awareness and dialogue.

"Young lady" infuriates me above all. I think I'm going to be very rude the next time somebody (almost invariably an early-middle-aged male) jauntily says that to me. I might even deck him, which I am fully capable of doing.

I just found your site by Googling "refering to an older woman as 'young lady' ", which just occurred by a middle aged waiter in a restaurant.
What was even more disturbing was the gasp by my four sixty something female companions when I replied "I am not young and I am not a lady" (a lady is someone who never had to work for a living as in lord and lady of a manor).
The judge is this post by a female attorney got it immediately and on a gut level when the term was used in his courtroom.

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