Infantilizing the Elderly

Speaking to the elderly as if they’re helpless does more harm than good.

Kara Mihm, Staff Writer

My grandmother, who was 91 when she passed, was everything but helpless, naive, and cute, which are all words that are used to describe a baby. She had lived through the Great Depression, presided as the head of the women’s guild organization at church, and danced for recreation until a few months before her death. Like the rest of those in her generation, as she adopted her signature white hair and smile lines, she became a victim of the infantilization of older folks.

Elderspeak” refers to the way that some people treat the elderly. It involves speaking more slowly or loudly, over-enunciating words, and simplifying speech patterns. In addition, when asking an older person a question, the “you” pronoun is replaced with a “we,” implying that they cannot think nor respond for themselves. 

“Are we enjoying our food today? I see that we are drinking tea, which we love. Right?

By asking the question without actually looking for a verbal response, the questioner assumes that the senior is confused and does not have full cognition.

Public health experts agree that this demeaning type of language can have a derogatory impact.

Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging.”

— Dr. Becca Levy, Yale University

“Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging,” Dr. Becca Levy, a psychology and epidemiology professor at Yale University, told The New York Times. “And those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival.”

Dr. Levy arrived at her findings by performing a long-term study with 660 people over the age of 50. She discovered that those who were subjected to elderspeak and negative perceptions of their future lived an average of seven and a half years shorter. Her findings remained the same, even after removing participants in order to fit controlled health conditions.

The problem is, though, many people do not realize that they are speaking this way. It is such a common occurrence for us to reply “aww” when seeing a video of an old man or woman performing a meaningless activity that we might not see anything wrong with it. Because of their aging and frail bodies, we view them as vulnerable, and in response, feel the need to protect them.

The elderly experience this type of condescending behavior not only at senior living or nursing homes but also in routine settings such as grocery stores, shopping centers, doctors’ offices, and restaurants. The internet has also made elderspeak more commonplace. While not all seniors openly oppose to being “sweetie’d” and “honey’d,” many take it as a personal insult–and rightfully so. 

Needless to say, there is a lot to learn from elderly seniors who have overcome the same obstacles that us young folk might be currently plagued by. Through their teenage years into their married lives, some have raised children, gone to war, attended college, and forged through successful careers. To put it simply, they have already won the battles that we who are younger are presently fighting. 

When I near my seventy-years-plus, I will not want to be disregarded as a person who cannot think or do for herself. I want the same independence that I have currently in my life until I am physically and mentally unable, and I am sure you believe the same.

So before we thoughtlessly speak to senior citizens as if they’re helpless, it’s best to remember what our parents have always preached — Always respect your elders.