Mean, Nasty, Hateful and Corrupt

How are We Feeling Today, Dearie?

category_bug_ageism.gif There comes a time for everyone when, in the eyes of the people around us, we have passed an invisible barrier into old age. If we have not yet realized this transition ourselves, there are plenty of younger people willing to set us straight.

A nurse may address us in the infantile plural: “And how are we today?

If shopping with a young person, the sales clerk may speak to him or her, rather than you: “Does she want the red or the blue?”

Or as happened to me during one of my final job searches before retiring, a 20-something interviewer says, “Tell me about your life goals, dearie.

Time Goes By reader, Gladys Cohn, emailed about one of the most annoying and common of these demeaning occurrences:

“While taking my order, our waiter insisted on referring to me as 'young lady' and then asked me if I was old enough to have a glass of wine. (I am 70.) I have been faced with this patronizing attitude fairly often.”

All these examples are, as Gladys notes, patronizing. You can add disrespectful and humiliating too; they rob us of the simple dignity that is automatically accorded everyone who is not old.

Nothing ever changes unless someone speaks up, so I'm wondering if we can invent some snappy repostes today, comebacks we can all file away to use in these circumstances to let the speakers know we will not silently allow them to treat us as though we have regressed to infancy just because we got old.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: The Shiny Maroon Radio


I think if we just respond 'in kind' "What do YOU think WE should have?" or "Thanks, dearie." and then apologize with a smile and say, "I'm so sorry, that sounds so demeaning, doesn't it?" and look them straight in the eye.

Well you can always say what Maggie Kuhn said (paraphrasing)when President Ford called her "young lady." She corrected him by saying quite assertively......."but, I'm an old lady......" How soon we forget.

When I'm with my 95 yr. old mom, occasionally (often a dr.)I'll be asked what would "she like or how does she feel." And I love retorting with: "why don't you ask her." Works every time. Dee

Same for me, when I am with my 81 year old father in law, shopping or at a doctor's app for him, I've had people start talking to me as if I'm in charge. I also just say, "you can ask him".
I don't know why people do this, but it is demeaning.

There is only one time when I will allow that to happen to me. When I have an important doctor visit, my daughter insists on coming, but --- only because I have a hearing problem and so that is the only time I say ok.

I appreciate this reminder to avoid offending people by how we talk to them or about them. It is blogs like this that make us (young and old alike) aware of how others perceive us.

But I wonder if it's fair to assume all of the interactions you use as examples are actually agist in nature. That nurse might talk to everyone in the plural, not just old people. That interviewer might annoy everyone by calling them "dearie." And that waiter probably uses the same line on everyone, trying to ingratiate himself and increase his tips.

This is not to say that agism isn't real—it certainly is. But some people aren't specifically agist; they're just annoying in general!

These are good answers, but I would be very careful what I said to a waiter as they might spit in your food before they bring it out.
Sometimes when someone refers to me as young, I say, Bless your poor eyesight.

This is one of the ageist areas that spurred me to write A New Wrinkle, a musical play on aging. In the play, I have a gathering where the characters play out assertive and sometimes highly original responses to these common demeaning and patronizing comments. It is very funny and quite instructive, and people who have heard the sequence often ask me for a copy of the script so they can practice the responses at home and put them to use. Which is certainly my intention.

When someone says, "How are we doing?" I look around me and ask where the other person is. Then I say I (emphasis) am doing fine, thank you.

When they call me 'young lady' I say, "Thanks for the compliment, but we both know I'm old."

I was at an appointment with my mother when the person addressed a question for my mother, who was in her late 80s, to me.

My mother looked annoyed and said, "I'm here, you know."

Maybe that's what we need to point out: "I'M HERE!"

Another way of responding to "dear," is to do what comedians do in situations like that. Example, Russell Peters (Toronto) freezes, looks around, as if someone else made the comment.

"Who said that?"

Or, react like Robert de Niro, look the perpetrator right in the eye, slowly say:

"are you talking to me?"

Watch them scramble for an apology.

I couldn't care less - just don't call me late for dinner.

One morning, a friend of mine dying of liver cancer and fully aware of it was visited by yet another new doctor at the University of Michigan hospital. As most of them are in the eyes of seniors, the physician was twelve or thirteen years old. Dressed in a crisp white lab coat, he looked up from his clipboard and smiled.
"Well, Charles, and what is it we do?"
"We're a child pornographer."
Still smiling, the doctor turned and left, never to return.

Oh, no! I just discovered that my snappy comment ideas have gone the way of all those lost, things! I do notice that, for the first time in my life, old-only communities like Sun City have begun to reveal their appeal.

I have a young friend, a tennis partner, who often addresses me as "young man" and on the surface this might seem demeaning coming from a 40 year old to a man almost twice his age. Yet, I know that he means no harm, he's saying that I move and hit like someone closer to his own age. I almost believe that he sincerely admires my vitality and "pluck".
It all comes down to "intentions" and here we should be willing to offer the benefit of the doubt. The waitress probably calls everybody "dearie" or perhaps "sweetheart" or "darling". She might really feel a sense of endearment towards her customers or perhaps she wants to. In any event, I'd say what my grandfather used to say "Call me anything you want- just don't call me "late for breakfast"

I remember how I felt the first time someone, probably a store clerk or waitperson, called me "mam". I must have been in my late 20's. I felt so OLD. Now I have to endure "hon", "darlin", even (yuk) "sweetie". I swear, the next time that happens I'm gonna rear up and say, "Please call me Mam." NOW I'm a "Mam".

How about, "You don't know me well enough to call me dearie."

Or, "I assume your calling me 'dearie' is meant to be kind and friendly, but it is in fact patronizing and ageist."

Or, "get out of my face, baby girl, I have no time left for insensitive children! Now, how did THAT feel to YOU?"

oooh, I like the last one. :)

Ageism is hardest on women. There is a place for old guys, many of whom continue to "get away with it" well into their dotage. Women, no. You are an old women and that's it.
But, as they say in Hawaii, I no keah. This is the least ageist place I've ever lived in, and I am much more self confident here than I would be in other places. People call me "auntie," and I consider that an honorific. It's meant in a kindly way and acknowledges the worth of my service to others.
Personally, I would take a cyanide pill before I adopted the "lifestyle" dictated to the elderly by AARP and the real estate people.

When a waitress calls me "young man" or marvels that I qualify for the senior discount, I tell her: "Talk like that will get you a huge tip every time."

At 73 I'm surprised the "dearie" thing hasn't happened to me yet, but I'm sure it will--and I'll hate it! When it does, I hope I remember some of the great ripostes I've read above, even though I do agree with Estelle's comment about waiters. My son worked in food service years ago, and a disgruntled server can take revenge in some pretty nasty ways.

Occasionally I get the "no one's there" treatment by 20-something salespeople, but I can usually get their attention by saying politely, "I'd like to pay for this--if you don't have time, maybe your supervisor could help me".

Kroger's Grocery Store offers a 5% senior discount on Wednesdays. As the young man was ringing up my groceries, I told him I was eligible for the Wednesday discount. He repied "there's no way you are eligible. I would say you weren't over 40". I didn't say anything back because he was trying to be complimentary, but I am 65 and I look my age. It's like they feel sorry for us because we are NOT 40 anymore.

I once went off on a nurse in the doctor's office who dared to call my MIL "Dear." I could see steam building up in Addy's face, and told the nurse a bit about Addy: "You are looking at the woman who single handedly desegregated the Lubbock High School Senior Prom, put a Monseigneur against the wall when he behaved inappropriately with a cheerleader and called a Governor of Texas an ass, to his face. This woman is not your dear, or anyone else's, with the possible exception of her children!"

I have allowed people to call me "hon" in restaurants, and then run home and written a scathing review of the staff of the place.

When i worked at borders in my 70s, the kids in the back room would be telling dirty jokes and would shut up when i came into view. i laffed, and that's when i started the thing i say now when someone offers to carry my bags. you see, i'm now in my 80s, look pretty good, and, feeling insulted, i've said, "i may be old but i'm not dead." now i'm getting smarter. i let them.

We do it to ourselves. Last night I was at a friend's gallery and an acquaintance and her husband who are in their 80s were there. I was telling them that I had applied for an apartment in the new building for "55 and better" as it says on the brochure and she replied "but you aren't old enough!" and I laughed and paraphrased Gloria Steinem -- "this is what 62 looks like on me." She laughed, too, and told me that they wondered what the building was like because it's so beautiful from the outside. I promised that they could come visit if/when I move in there.

I think most people say these things not because they are intending on being mean. To be snarky, no matter how clever, and intolerant of others ignorance is only going to make matters worse, in that people become defensive. What we CAN do is enlighten by being prepared for the ignorant remark and present enough to recognize their error and respond in the most appropriate way for the moment. The person will far more likely remember the encounter, if they are gently brought into a new awareness with humor and kindness.

Having said that, one of my favorite scenes in a movie is Fried Green Tomatoes when Kathy Bates character, Evelyn Couch, rams the young co-eds little Volkswagen when they quickly take her parking place. After she rams their car 6 times with hers, her character says: "Face it, girls, I'm older and I have more insurance." I saw that movie a good long time ago when I was closer to feeling like a co-ed than looking and feeling like Evelyn and I remembered her frustration.

I think sharing stories that inform are a better use of our frustration than lashing out our rage. I think we might consider trying to find a way to teach awareness as elders. It's a drag to think we should have to work so hard for a respect that we may never get. It should come automatically by virtue of our tenacity but I believe self respect is never lost and is strong medicine.

Old people are often stereotyped, but so are bosses, mothers-in-law, teenagers, celebrities, cops and WalMart shoppers. I never want to fit the stereotype of an out-of-touch, crotchety, cantankerous old lady. I try to meet inevitable agism with humor and a smile, and earn respect that way.

While I think agism is very real, I think most people think they're paying a compliment when they refer to me as "Young Lady," or whatever. I'd rather be remembered as "Honey" than vinegar.

Well I admit I used to bristle at being called "dear" by a waitress..but I am so over that! I smile and ask a question that let's her know I am interested in her world, the food or the business. I thank her lavishly for her service and then I thank God I am not waiting on table, working for tips and cleaning up after cranky diners. The next time we see each other, that waitress may call me "dear" but she may also remember that I a good human being, "a dear."

The last time someone (who wasn't that much younger than I) addressed me as "Young lady", I looke them square in the eyes and said, "I'm neither young nor a lady. Let's take it from there!" Well, needless to say, that let them speechless -- much to my delight!

I have been called "Dear" for a couple of years now... can't remember just when it started, but I let it go. Guess I knew it was inevitable. But, here is one that really drives me crazy, not to mention I find it insulting. I am now being addressed as Mama by some store clerks when I ask for directions to a product, or when I'm at check out.

Misty--Astounding! I recall, in 1959, during delivery of our elder daughter, telling the medical person who called me "Mama", "I'm not your mama, so don't call me that!"

Thanks for your input, Cop Car. A great come-back and terrific presence of mind during delivery--I couldn't think of anything except the pain I was in. One thing I came up with was, "I have two children and I know you aren't one of them." But, that might be too subtle to have an impact. I like yours.

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