Feeling Helpless (Speaking Down to the Elderly)

Everyone would love to stay young forever. In our youth-oriented culture the prospect of aging and dealing with all the complications that may come is frightening. Because of this as youth we often allow ourselves to subconsciously  feel superior to what we perceive as the frail and weak aged generation. This leads us to take on an almost ‘motherly’ attitude and often we may find ourselves speaking down to the elderly in a way that we might speak to a baby.

“And how are we doing today?” “Oh, you’re such a sweetie.” “Don’t you look pretty today!” And many other similar phrases are often used by the younger generation when addressing the elderly on a daily basis. Doctor Marian Dehlinger said about this type of speaking in her geo-psychiatric unit, “When [the elderly] come and they are under our care, and they are in this dependent role anyway, we can fall into this trap of using language and behaviors that can validate in their mind these negative views that they are helpless.”

When we speak down to the elderly we affirm to them that we believe they are frail, weak, and helpless. We damage their emotional well-being and as such we negatively affect their health. Elaine Smith, a 78-year old retired Chicago schoolteacher, was hospitalized after a fall and for two months she was subjected to condescending phrases and treatment. She said, “I often didn’t feel strong enough to answer back. But even worse, I felt that this sort of attitude and message was grinding me down. It reduces your self-esteem and at times I felt it was just easiest to give in to the stereotype that I didn’t know what I wanted or needed.”

Speaking down to the elderly only increases their sense that they are helpless. According to a ground-breaking study, speaking down to the elderly does more than just harm them emotionally; it also has a detrimental effect on their health. Researchers stated, “Verbal ageism can harm longevity by delivering a self-fulfilling message that older people are incompetent, frail and feeble, sending them into a negative downward spiral.”

The research went on to conclude that there is a clear connection between treatment of the elderly and their health and functioning. Those exposed to belittling language and negative stereotypes performed far worse on memory and balance tests than those who were exposed to positive, respectful language. In a town in Ohio, the researchers found that seniors who had positive perceptions about aging lived on average 7.5 years longer than those who had negative views. These emotional perceptions about aging and about themselves had a greater impact on the length of their lives than not smoking or regular exercise.

We have to understand that seniors in their later years are already struggling to feel good about themselves, and we don’t need to make it worse. A man who has provided for his family for fifty years then gradually finds himself unable dress himself and cook his own meals, may look at his family and state sadly, “I’m supposed to be taking care of you.” A woman who was at the top of her game in her career field and then finds herself unable to leave her home or the care of her caregiver, may find herself shaking her head and whispering to herself, “What purpose do I have now?”

These people that we often find ourselves speaking down to are adults, not children. They’ve spent their years working for their families, serving in their communities, and participating in their nation. They have earned the right to our respect, and we have a duty as the younger generation to show them that though they may not be able to drive to work or cook their own meals, they are still important and we respect them.

One day we will all age; it is the fact of life. We may fear it. We may not want it, but we can’t allow our fears and the gap between our generations to let us belittle the elderly we encounter each day. Miss Kelly, an 83-year-old New Yorker, put it bluntly, “I believe that the people who heap these endearments upon us are reacting to their own fears of aging in a youth-oriented culture. My advice, darlings – get over it.”


About National Care Planning Council

The National Care Planning Council and its affiliated members are dedicated to helping families recognize the need for long term care planning. We are committed to raising awareness and providing information on common eldercare issues. Integrity, honesty, and a genuine concern for the elderly and their families are at the heart of our services.

Posted on June 29, 2012, in Elderly Emotions and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Absolutely true. I appreciate what you said. Great post indeed. Thanks for sharing such a valuable post. Keep sharing

  2. This is the best blog post for anyone who desires to search out out about this topic. You understand a lot – it’s nearly hard to argue with you (not that I would…HaHa). You undoubtedly put a brand new spin on a subject that’s been written about for years. Great stuff, simply great!

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