An interesting article in the spring edition of Aging Well magazine explored the significance of addressing elders in a respectful way. That means no “elderspeak” – as Dr. Ira Rosofsky, the article’s author puts it – “the old-age analog of baby talk” (using words like sweetie, honey, dear, etc.).
As to whether or not you should call the elder by their first name, Dr. Rosofsky believes one should begin by addressing them as Mrs., Ms. or Mr. Smith, and continue calling them as such until they tell you otherwise. If they never say, “Please just call me John, or Nancy,” then Mr. Jones, or Ms. Wright, is the thing to say.
Researchers at the University of Kansas found that elders in care settings who were addressed in a respectful way, rather than a familiar or patronizing way, were less resistant and more compliant. Although well-meaning staff members think they are being kind or caring by using such language as “honey” or “sweetie” or even by using their first names, residents felt condescended to or infantilized.
Another Aging Well article (from December 2008) explored the ageist labels used frequently by staff in hospital settings, for instance, ““Dotty old guy in bed three.” “Gramps down the hall.” “Sweet old lady.” The author of this piece, physician’s assistant Richard Currey, asserts that such phrases, though used carelessly and rarely with malicious intent, are indicative of a deep ageism that runs through our culture. As he puts it, “…these discriminatory labels, no matter how they’re ultimately intended or directed, all tend to demean or devalue.”
Outside of care settings, I think this is something that families also struggle with – many adult children, finding themselves in a sort of role reversal as they care for an aging parent, may slip into elderspeak because they feel their parent is dependent on them.
This is a tough issue, really. It’s one thing to read about elderspeak and think, “I’d never talk to someone else that way, because I would hate for someone to speak to me that way.” But it’s another thing to view the person you are caring for as helpless or frail and in need of compassion and not want to say something you think might be soothing or loving. But stop before you speak. Take your time. Our “rush rush” culture is probably at the root of some of these careless monikers. Think carefully, and choose something respectful and appropriate, rather than something syrupy sweet and insincere.