Hearing people address elderly strangers in overly familiar terms such as “dear” or “sweetie” has always bothered me. When I’m out with my grandmother and someone (generally an overzealous salesperson) goes the “dear” route with her, it always seems so patronizing and disrespectful. Whatever happened to a good old-fashioned “Ma’am”?
As it turns out, new research on the subject of “elderspeak” justifies my discomfort: such informal terms of address can cause people to view aging more negatively, adversely affecting their health and longevity, including survival rates.
Dr. Becca Levy, an associate professor at Yale University who studies elderspeak’s health effects on senior citizens, was interviewed for this October 6 New York Times article. Here’s a summary (from the article) of findings from two of her research studies:
In a long-term survey 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 or not smoking. The findings held up even when the researchers controlled for differences in the participants’ health conditions.
In her forthcoming study, Dr. Levy found that older people exposed to negative images of aging, including words like “forgetful,” “feeble” and “shaky,” performed significantly worse on memory and balance tests; in previous experiments, they also showed higher levels of stress.
Interestingly enough, the Times article goes on to say that health care professionals are often “the worst offenders” when it comes to respectful treatment of elderly people, citing research by Dr. Kristine Williams of the University of Kansas School of Nursing. Williams videotaped daily life in a nearby nursing home, looking closely at the interactions between 20 residents and professional caregivers. She found that patients “addressed as [though they were] infants… showed their irritation by grimacing, screaming or refusing to do what staff members asked of them”, and that the feeling of incompetence incited by elderspeak “begins a negative downward spiral for older persons, who react with decreased self-esteem, depression, withdrawal and the assumption of dependent behaviors.”
Of course, not everyone of retirement age objects to labeling by the “sweetie” set — some consider “dear” and its kin warm and friendly, a playful way to connect verbally. However, healthcare professionals and others who spend time with older people would do well to weigh their words carefully. Elderspeak isn’t just annoying to most elderly folks, or disrespectful — it can have an adverse effect on the person’s views toward aging, relationships with caregivers, health, and even longevity. Plus, I don’t have to cringe when I overhear you calling my 86-year-old grandmother “honey”.