Getting more exercise and not smoking may increase your lifespan, but it may be that having positive perceptions of aging is more important to longevity. According to research by Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, people who hold positive perceptions about growing older lived an average of 7.5 years longer.

The way we talk to old people can be harmful. Some people feel it is appropriate to address an old person as “dear” or “sweetie.” Some people speak as though the old person, just by being old, can no longer comprehend normal speech. This manner of talking to old people has been called “elderspeak.”

Karen Austen, a graduate student in Aging Studies at Wichita State University, has published a more comprehensive description of elderspeak. She writes that elderspeak “communicates a condescending attitude.” It assumes that old people are dependent, frail, weak, incapable and incompetent. Some characteristics of elderspeak are:

  • Speaking to old people more slowly or more loudly
  • Speaking in a sing-song voice
  • Using the pronoun “we” instead of “you” (“How are we doing today?”)
  • Using shorter sentences and simpler words
  • Using inappropriately intimate terms of endearment

Language laced with sweet little insults belittles old people and can shape an old person’s perceptions about aging. As Dr. Levy says: “Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging, and those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival.”

Dr. Levy’s research shows that people who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The negative effects of elderspeak may include impaired memory and balance and higher levels of stress. “We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” says Dr. Levy.

In another study, Elderspeak Communication: Impact on Dementia Care, Dr. Kristine Williams found that the use of elderspeak by nursing staff in long term care facilities could result in communication breakdown and could trigger problem behaviors such as aggression and vocal outbursts. Elderspeak conveys an implied message that old people are less competent than younger adults. It is no surprise that some old people recoil, feeling a loss of self-esteem, becoming depressed, becoming withdrawn or succumbing to premature dependency.

Negative messages about aging abound in our society. Being old is being “over-the-hill” and “past-one’s-prime.” At my age, I am not far from becoming an “old fogey” or a “codger.” These words do not lose their pernicious effect by being spoken light-heartedly. Indeed, I would not want to lose my sense of humor about becoming older and facing my “declining years.” Humor serves as a defense. The point is that a defense is needed in a society that seems to have so little positive to say about growing old.

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