Don't Call Me Honey!

Asian waitress taking order
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Last evening, my friend Donna and I met for our too-infrequent girls' night out. Food was good, conversation was great, service was quite good... until....

Donna made a request, and the server (a 20-something) replied,"Sure, I'll be right back with that, honey."


It struck us both -- that we have reached that age where younger people are compelled to talk to us as if we are children. Give me a break!

It reminded me of a couple of studies I have read about, both related to healthcare, that show what happens when younger people address "older" (hey! I'm not THAT old!) people in a baby-talk sort of way. The professionals call it "elderspeak." It is (I hope) a subconcious attempt by a younger person to help us understand something. They slow down their speech (giving our older, feeble minds time to absorb what they've told us). They sweeten up their words (thus, "Honey", alternatively "Dear" or "Sweetie") and they aren't really concerned about whether we truly understand because, in all actuality, they are being dismissive. Just like with babies. Often accompanied by a "there, there" pat on the hand.

So what does that have to do with patient empowerment?

Those studies I mentioned have shown that such belittling elderspeak can actually have negative health consequences for the older person.

It turns out that when people are talked to in such a condescending fashion, they begin to perceive themselves as being less capable - which then affects their decision making and abilities to care for themselves.

We often see it (experience it) in nursing homes, doctor's offices, or in any situation where the person doing the elder-speaking is there to assist the older person in some way.

I'm sure most have no idea that's how they are coming across, nor do they wish to be so condescending.  But they are.

So what can we do about it? Plenty. It's time to teach them youngins a thingertwo!

Seriously -- if you are old (like I obviously am) -- and someone speaks to you in a condescending fashion -- even if they think they are being "sweet" and helpful or if you observe such elderspeak taking place, perhaps as you accompany an older person to a medical appointment or visit or advocate for them in a hospital, then do something about it.

Reply with something like, "Please don't call me honey" or "I know you mean well, but I'm not a child - you may call me Mrs. Smith" - or whatever you think is appropriate to respond. If you can, go on to explain that such elderspeak is condescending and you KNOW he or she can't possibly MEAN to be condescending. Not only will you feel better about it, but you will have taught that youthful offender something important about working with us much-older folks, too.

You don't need to be defensive or belligerent. Just a polite response will do! You'll be empowered by knowing that you are helping not just yourself, but others who might have felt belittled in the future.  It's a great way to pay-it-forward.

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