October 8th, 2008

ozarque figure

Eldering; talking to elders...

My thanks to all of you who have sent me alerts for the Heidi Schumann New York Times article titled "In 'Sweetie' and 'Dear,' a Hurt for the Elderly," at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/us/07aging.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin . Which opens with this:

"Professionals call it elderspeak, the sweetly belittling form of address that has always rankled older people: the doctor who talks to their child rather than to them about their health; the store clerk who assumes that an older person does not know how to work a computer, or needs to be addressed slowly or in a loud voice. Then there are those who address any elderly person as 'dear.' "

Suppose I start by clearing away the usual science-journalism clutter. I would start by saying that I don't know which group of professionals uses the term "elderspeak" for this sort of thing. For linguists, "elderspeak" would have to refer to some register spoken by elders, not one spoken to elders. Then I'd need to point out that the only item in the paragraph that goes with "the sweetly belittling form of address that has always rankled older people" is the bit about addressing any elderly person as "dear." And then there's the fact that the "any elderly person" who is addressed as "dear" [or as "sweetie," for that matter] is almost always going to be a female elder. Male elders get first-name address instead. With all that out of the way, we can move on.

The register in question is certainly "belittling"; sometimes it's "sweetly" belittling, sometimes not. And I can't think of any non-awkward name for it. An accurate but clunky name would be "AgeismSpeak"; for lack of any better alternative, I'll use that one. It goes with an automatic kneejerk assumption that all elders are cognitively impaired to such a degree that it's acceptable to speak to them as if they were small children.

The interesting paragraph in the article is the one on the research done by Prof. Becca Levy of Yale -- in "a long-term survey of 660 people over age 50 in a small Ohio town" -- which claims that elders whose perception of aging is positive "lived an average of 7.5 years longer" than those whose perceptions were negative. According to Leland, these results held even when researchers "controlled for differences in the participants' health conditions" and the 7.5 years of increased lifespan is greater than that associated with exercising or with being a non-smoker. I haven't read the original research; if it's accurately described by Leland, it's important.

I don't find it surprising in any way that elders who are consistently treated as if they are demented, decrepit, and incompetent -- or simply as if they are tiny children -- react to that language environment with a level of stress that is dangerous to their health. This is consistent with everything we know about the body/mind link as it relates to illness and to wellness. But just being careful about the vocabulary used with elders won't solve the problem, not if the nonverbal message -- carried by intonation, tone of voice, and other body language -- is still "I perceive you as a tiny child."

So far, I've been reasonably fortunate in my experience with this phenomenon. Most medical professionals (and their staffs) who address me as "Suzette" are people I consider to be friends, and people that I feel free to address by their first names. My dentist's staff all address me as "Dr. Elgin" -- which always startles the other patients in the waitingroom who've been sitting there thinking of me as a little old lady with bad hair. The only salespeople who've tried that tactic of talking to me verrrry slowly in words of one syllable, or very loudly, or calling me "dear" or "sweetie" have been individuals of two kinds: (a) those who were obviously themselves so dim that I felt sorry for them; and (b) those who snapped out of that style of communication instantly after they'd heard me say half a dozen words.

Enough for now...