Legal Law

The Elders and the Invisible Elders

Last September (September 1 to be exact) I was in a wheelchair in an emergency room with a fractured patella that occurred in a moment of completely lucid but disturbed balance. But here’s the good news: the beer bottle he was carrying was unharmed. Not a single broken glass or drop of sparkling goodness was wasted. (That takes talent!) I should have known better than to drink from the second bottle of beer, but as the saying goes, “What the heck. I was having fun.” Even better news: the white jeans he was wearing survived without marks or rips.

Have I learned my lesson? Yes, of course I have. I’m not a dumb bunny. I don’t drink beer anymore. Now I drink white wine. Best of all, my sense of humor remains intact.

After a long wait in the emergency roomI was wheeled into a room by an attendant who thought I was her “honey” and waited a bit longer for a nurse (or anyone else) to show up. My daughter and son-in-law were standing behind my chair when a nurse arrived. Then the fun began. As if I wasn’t there, the nurse asked my daughter for details about how my injury occurred.

I was thinking, “Why doesn’t the nurse ask ME those questions? It’s MY injury!” Irritation ate at me until I finally turned the bulky flesh to face the nurse, knocking over a few cabinets in the process. (I should have turned the chair around before she entered the room, but the space was small.) In a calm and courteous tone of voice, I said, “Excuse me, I can hear and understand everything she says and I can answer all of her questions.” . You can talk with me. I’m not senile.” And I smiled.

The poor woman was returned. Probably no one had ever spoken to him like that before. After all, she was just applying the accepted protocol for dealing with an elderly person: it’s a cultural thing, a “given”: white hair equates to incompetence or senility. In her eyes, she had done nothing wrong. She knew that and that’s why I intentionally spoke to her in a calm and courteous tone of voice.

Older people get used to and even expect (but they don’t like) being treated as if they don’t exist or are incompetent. It’s a social assumption that older people can’t think clearly or remember much and can’t hear or understand if you speak too softly or too fast.. After all, most older people are senile or close to it, so you have to patronize them and treat them like Really? REALLY?

Not all the elderly are on the verge of senility – most are not even closed. Mature people function quite well if they are spoken to with respect and treated with the assumption that they are competent. If they have a mental disability, acknowledge their existence and treat them with respect.

Let’s go to the language of the elders element of the “old people are invisible” syndrome that I already experienced before I became invisible. It’s beyond annoying and disrespectful. Here is an unrelated, but typical example of the elder iceberg:

My sister and her husband were dedicated runners. They were “mature”, not teenagers. On their daily tour of the community and their neighborhood, neighbors sitting on their front lawns, many with soda cans in hand, yelled at them as they flew by: “you are so cute!“Was my sister mad? You can bet. Please don’t call mature people ‘cute’. A six-year-old is cute. Calling an old man ‘cute’ is as demeaning and childish as it sounds.

There’s more here: If you are a healthcare worker, a mature patient you just met is not your “honey” or “honey.” Terms of endearment are appropriate only when there is a romantic relationship. Egady! What a revelation! An older person in a romantic relationship? [gasp!] That’s gross! Really? No, it’s not. Oh, one more thing: Don’t call me “Miss.” It is condescending, demeaning, condescending and disrespectful. (Okay, okay, I’m being overly sensitive and grumpy.)

If those in authority call you cute or utter another term of endearment, it’s tempting to want to drag them out and beat them up in reality, but don’t give in to the temptation. Flip them over and tell them how cute they are, and how sweet they are for telling you how cute you are. Make sure to smile while you do it. Take note of your nervous or confused reaction.

Becca R. Levy is a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. and professor of psychology at Yale University. She is a leading researcher in the fields of social gerontology and the psychology of aging. I have been following her work for a long time. She has been at the forefront of the issues that occur as a result of the way competent older adults are often treated and approached.

Dr. Levy believes that many who use the language of the elders – including health workers – do not understand that it can be offensive and destructive. She says, “I’ve heard some people say they want to be able to use terms of endearment, it’s their way of expressing their affection for older people, but I’ve heard older people say it can be disparaging” and “In terms of healthcare settings, It’s probably a good idea to ask people how they want to be addressed, what’s most comfortable for them…”

I can go deep into the weeds on this topic, but I think I’ve made my point. Don’t call anyone with gray or white hair (or no hair at all) that you just met “cute” or “honey” or use another term of endearment. Don’t automatically assume they are incompetent. Acknowledge and respect their existence. Everybody gets old. One day you will be where they are now and probably in a [gulp!] [gasp!] romantic relationship – if you are lucky. (Yes, yes. I know it’s disgusting. My sexy old aunt, Miss Prunella, says “Get over it.”)

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