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Ageism. Please don’t call me ‘dear’.

Ageism, like other forms of stereotyping, is insidious and insulting, affecting not just the elderly, but young people as well. It’s difficult to admit, but stereotypes of all age groups are deeply ingrained in our mindset, with one of the most common being the perception that the elderly are frail, incompetent, and doddering with a failing memory. Taking the stairs elicits grave concern for the elderly person’s safety; a forgotten detail is written off as “a senior moment”…

Defined as stereotyping, discriminating or unfair treatment based on a person’s age, ageism isn’t always delivered with evil intent. Instead, it is like a bad habit that’s implanted deep in our consciousness. Even the most common of interactions can produce an unintentional, insensitive response. If an elderly person announces their age, it can be met with: “Don’t worry dear, you certainly don’t look like you’re 82.” Although well-meaning, these types of comments insinuate that this age is somehow negative or something to be ashamed of. At least the person doesn’t look as bad as they really are.

Taking the stairs elicits concern for the elderly person’s safety; a forgotten detail is written off as ‘a senior moment’ …

The real story about ageing

We are all unique. Everyone has lived a different life, and we all age differently. We are all a product of our DNA, life experiences, choices, career paths, diet and so much more. So many factors combine together to determine who we are at any stage of our journey. Frankly, five-year-olds are a lot more similar-looking than, for example, 70-year-olds because they have had less time to develop their own individual imprint. Ironically though, the elderly are all assumed to be alike because, well, they’re just “old”.

Acknowledging real ageing means letting go of stereotypes and acknowledging “real selves”. Society needs to recognise older adults as individuals, not one watered-down, homogenised elderly demographic.

With the elderly now living longer and the proportion of elderly people in Australia being higher than ever before, we need to take a serious look at how we perceive elderly people. Or, if that’s not enough to motivate you, you need to have a serious think about how you would like to be perceived in the future. Because old age will happen to you, too. You’ll still be the same person, but more experienced. More old, if you like.

“Your face is lined and your hair is grey, so they think you are weak, deaf, helpless, ignorant and stupid…It is assumed that you have no opinions and no standards of behaviour, that nothing that happens in your vicinity is any of your business…”

Helen Garner (celebrated author, writer and feminist, aged 72),  “The Insults of Age – A one-woman assault on condescension”, The Monthly, May 2015.

Avoiding age stereotyping - Sage Institute of Aged CareIn recent years, a lot has been written on stereotyping elderly people in the workplace. Age reforms were not put in place until 2004 in Australia and the issue remains a topical one. But ageism goes beyond professional life. It affects recreational pursuits, daily activities, relationships and basically every aspect of our life. Above all, ageism affects an individual’s dignity. Unfortunately, a lack of dignity can have a profound effect on your quality of life.

Much like racism and sexism, ageism needs to be given an airing – put out in the open, discussed and examined. Society needs to change, and our thoughts need to be challenged. Some factors certainly don’t help the cause:

  • films, TV shows and comedians referring to the elderly generally as deaf people with memory loss;
  • health practitioners and other people in positions of authority talking past the senior person in the room to another family member, as if the aged person was not there;
  • the media stereotyping the elderly as people that are out of touch and computer illiterate, and
  • younger people mocking seniors in regard to their lack of hearing or forgetfulness.

Elderspeak: the art of condescension

Have you ever noticed yourself talking differently to an older person than you would one of your friends? Have you ever started to increase the volume as you deliberate your words, speak in a sing-song voice, or simplify your sentences?

This common practice of patronising speech has a name: “elderspeak”. Ironically, it is more difficult for anyone to understand than normal speech. It does, however, reflect the stereotypical view of the elderly as dim-witted and half-deaf. Several studies have been made on elderspeak, where it was found that recipients of this condescending patter no matter what their age, picked up less information and performed worse in recollection tests than other control groups.

In short, elderspeak is received negatively by anyone that is dealt it, and, in particular, high-functioning elderly people, who are acutely aware that they are being talked down to and stereotyped.

The double whammy

For many women, ageism hits at a time where they were just getting into step. Middle age can bring benefits to many women.  With maturity and life experience comes an increased level of confidence, and people start to appreciate them for their knowledge, humour and wisdom. Then, just as they’re getting into the new swing of things, bam – time’s up – you’re now an old, doddering fool.

“The pretty young publisher tottering along in her stilettos: “Are you right on these stairs, Helen?”…The grinning red-faced bloke who mutters to the young man taking the seat beside me: “Bad luck, mate.” ”

Helen Garner “The Insults of Age – A one-woman assault on condescension”, The Monthly, May 2015

aging with dignity - Sage Institute of Aged CareYou too will be there, one day, with your grey hair, translucent skin and fading eyesight. But there’s every chance you’ll still be mentally alert, inquisitive, physically active and even frighteningly fit. You may still be successfully working. Or studying. It’s likely you’ll still have passions, strong opinions and certainly advice to give. But wouldn’t it be nice to be treated with dignity and respect? Wouldn’t it be nice if nobody called you ‘dear’?

Sage Institute of Aged Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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