“Elderspeak” Hurts Our Health

How do you feel when a stranger, sales clerk, or health professional calls you “dear” or “sweetie”? In a widely reprinted New York Times article titled “In ‘Sweetie’ and ‘Dear,’ a Hurt for the Elderly” (October 6, 2008), writer John Leland reveals that elderspeak, “the sweetly belittling form of address” that we’ve all experienced, can have health consequences. In addition, if we accept and internalize that aging means we’re forgetful or feeble, we don’t live as long — just by believing the negative image of aging.

Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University studies the health effects of belittling messages on elderly people. “Those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival,” she says.

According to the New York Times article,

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.

Health care workers are often the worst offenders of “elderspeak,” believing that they are using affectionate terms rather than belittling ones. Yet elderspeak sends a message that we are incompetent, childlike, and need to be taken care of. Over time, people exposed constantly to this message actually become more dependent and withdrawn, less self-reliant or competent.

Personally, I wouldn’t have guessed this. I’m about to turn 65 (tomorrow!) and I rather like terms of endearment, even from strangers. Robert used to love to go to a particular restaurant because the waitress called him “honey.” I take these endearments as they’re meant, as warm and friendly overtures, without belittling undertones that I’m incompetent or feeble. But that may be because I know I am strong mentally (writing books) and physically (dancing, Pilates, lifting weights). If I had doubts about my abilities, perhaps elderspeak would reinforce them. Certainly having positive images of aging is essential for moving through this part of our life journey with joy and energy — but does a stranger or health professional calling us “sweetie” really call that into question? Not for me — but I’d love to hear from you about this.If it does bother you, do you speak up? Do you say, “My name is….” or respond, “Thank you, darling”?


  1. paula on November 14, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    In the south people use terms like “sweetie” “honey” and “darling” for everyone. I call younger women “honey” a lot. It’s a term of affection, an indication that the person is “one of us.”

    Perhaps it’s important to discern when this talk is condescending and when it’s not. It’s more about the tone and attitude than about the words.

    I like what Joan says, she knows she’s intelligent, capable, and strong, so the prospect of being talked down to doesn’t bother her.

    Perhaps next time this happens to me, I’ll pretend I didn’t hear, or that I thought they were addressing someone else. I’ll stand up real straight when I do this, and keep smiling. Maybe if the person’s really over the line, I’ll lower my designer glasses and look right at them with eyebrows slightly raised.

    Elders can’t expect society to give us self esteem. We have to claim it for ourselves.

  2. Karen Rayne, Ph.D. on November 10, 2008 at 1:32 am

    This is something I’ll need to think about. I generally use terms like sweetie with people of all ages – my peers included (20’s – 30’s). I wonder if I should consciously change how I address the elderly? I’d love to know what you think, Joan and everyone else!

  3. Anonymous on November 9, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    My mother hated to be called anything other than Mrs.____ (Her first name was Svea, nothing anyone could ever pronounce correctly). Sweetie and Honey were absolutly not tolerted. Now, ten years after her death, I find myself disliking it also. I think it is a copout, not bothering to say the person’s name. Being called dear by a busy waitress is less offensive than being called Sweetie by a daily caregiver!

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