Some of you may know Marcy Belson as she is a regular contributor to our companion blog, The Elder Storytelling Place, and comments here at TGB too.
Last weekend she emailed about a visit to the emergency room. Not to worry - she was quickly back home and is on the mend. Why I mention it is this part of her note to me:
”I did have to listen to a youngish nurse tell me that "us older people tend to ignore or not realize we have symptoms". Maybe so. Maybe not.”
If I had been the nurse, I would have assumed that Marcy was not ignoring symptoms at all; just hoping they were something temporary that would go away on their own – until they didn't and it became urgent that she seek medical attention.
What Marcy got instead was that faux intimacy practiced toward elders by some professionals when they are trying not to roll their eyes at what they perceive as stupidity.
Unfortunately, it is a common occurrence that the default attitude of many younger people – usually strangers - toward the old is that we are none too bright.
They often talk to us more loudly than necessary, they like to explain the obvious and tend to call us “dearie,” “hon” or – the worst - “young lady” when we haven't been anywhere near that category for a few decades.
(Do old men get this too or is it just women who are patronized in this manner?)
There is a name for this kind of demeaning speech. It's called “elderspeak” and being the target of it can shorten an old person's life by up to 7.5 years according to the estimable Yale University associate professor of psychology, Becca Levy, because it reinforces a person's negative perception of their age:
“In a long-term study of 660 people over age 50 in a small Ohio town, published in 2002,” reported The New York Times, “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.” [emphasis added]
Further, in the same Times story, nurse gerontologist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Nursing, “Dr. [Kristine] Williams, noted that members of the healthcare community are among the worst offenders in using elderspeak:
“…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.”
Anyone who has been reading this blog for awhile can likely guess that I don't suffer elderspeak for a moment anywhere, any time. No one has ever tried it twice with me. But there can be times when it's not possible to fight back.
In another news story from 2008 about Levy's elderspeak study, 78-year-old, retired school teacher, Elaine Smith, was quoted:
"I was in hospital for two months after a fall and the whole time was subjected to condescending treatment and phrases such as 'sweetie,' 'dear' and 'good girl,' she said.
“I often didn't feel strong enough to answer back. But even worse, I felt that this sort of attitude and message was grinding me down. It reduces your self-esteem and at times I felt it was just easiest to give in to the stereotype that I didn't know what I wanted or needed."
It shouldn't be necessary to spend time and money on expensive research to prove that treating old people like babies is bad for their health. It ought to be obvious. What you can do is fight back every time it happens to you or someone you're with. The next elder will thank you.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Vicki E. Jones: A Scream in the Night