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 Over time, people exposed constantly to this message actually become more dependent and withdrawn, less self-reliant or competent.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”?