It’s not just ostracized minorities who look for freedom from insults and societal prejudice as they navigate the aging process. The list of abuses against the post 60-crowd is long, ranging from physical and financial abuse to job discrimination. Thankfully many of us will never experience that kind of egregious maltreatment.
But I’ll bet that all of us have been or will be subjected to a daily kind of insult called “elder speak.” John Leland wrote an article about this topic in the New York Times entitled, “In ‘Sweetie’ and ‘Dear’ a Hurt Beyond Insult for the Elderly.” (October 7, 2008). He describes the words and tones of voice that insult the elderly—calling a woman “dearie” or “young lady” (my particular peeve) or speaking to an older person slowly in a loud voice.
Our society is aggressively ageist. I don’t think it’s enough to say that we are just youth-oriented, it’s more like we are in love with everything young. We are age-phobic and especially afraid of those fellow-travelers of aging—illness, disability, loss, and dependence.
It makes sense that we would be afraid, especially given the prevalence of the YOYO (You’re On Your Own) ethic. We do our best to follow the example of Buddha’s father, who raised his son in a palace, unexposed to aging, illness, disability and death—a world eerily similar to that promoted by ad agencies.
Leland’s article mentions interesting research done by Professor Becca Levy at Yale on the health effects of this kind of negative messaging. She finds that negative messages reinforce a negative self-image, which can affect overall health and even mortality. The negative image doesn’t just affect seniors individually, it affects them as a group. Careers in geriatrics and gerontology are not presented as attractive career goals. There are few programs and less funding. It also affects younger generations. They can pretend it will never happen to them, so they don’t prepare, failing to take advantage of the skills and experience of older generations.