CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As Tom Brokow wrote in his book "The Greatest Generation," we owe a debt of gratitude to our elders. They survived recessions, the Great Depression, numerous wars including World War II, political upheaval and much more.
Yet despite all they have accomplished for us and our nation, many are not addressed with the level of courtesy, dignity and respect they have so justly earned. Increasingly, I hear seniors being addressed as "Pops," "Gramps," "Honey," etc. In addition, many are spoken to as if they are clueless children just because they might not see, move or hear as well.
I recently witnessed this firsthand while my grandmother was in the hospital. She was called not by her name, but as "Granny," "Cutie Pie" and "Maw-Maw." While I'm sure the offenders did not mean any harm, and probably were using these expressions as an attempt to be friendly, their words stung. They sounded more patronizing than charming.
Another example occurred while I was sitting in the waiting area of a doctor's office. The receptionist called an elderly lady "Sweet Pea." The lady was clearly offended and advised the receptionist that was not her name. When the receptionist asked what she would like to be called, the lady said, "Try my name!"
Think about it, most of us don't call our doctor, banker, priest, pastor or rabbi "Sweetie." Why are seniors any different?
This infantilizing, sometimes insensitive and rude way that many speak to the elderly has become so common that there is now a term used to identify the offending behavior. It is called "elderspeak" and is defined as the use of a condescending tone or words to communicate with senior citizens.
A recent New York Times article reported that a study done by Yale University professor Beca Levy showed that elderspeak might adversely affect a senior's health by sending a negative message about aging. This negative message can result in decreased self-esteem, depression, withdrawal and dependent behaviors.
Studies also have found that the adoption of these negative behaviors can result in lower rates of survival in the elderly. These so called "terms of endearment" may contribute to them feeling less valid as an individual, or send a message that they are incompetent.
Other studies have demonstrated that those experiencing dementia or Alzheimer's disease exhibited more aggressive behavior and were less cooperative when they were addressed in ways such as "good girl" or "Dearie" instead of their name.
What happened to respectful forms of address? Unless given permission otherwise, no adult (elderly or not) should be addressed by anything other than Mr., Ms., Miss or Mrs., followed by the last name. If the last name is not known, then "sir" or "ma'am" is appropriate. They should be called by their first name only if they have given their consent.
While "Granny," "Pops" and "Maw-Maw" are terms many of us call our own grandparents, referring to all senior citizens by these names can be more belittling than endearing. So be aware that while you may think that you are being kind by calling a senior by these expressions; your words may be potentially hurtful to them. It simply comes down to courtesy and respect, regardless of age.
Pam Harvit, M.S., is a corporate etiquette and protocol consultant. She is employed by Merck and Co. and lives in Charleston. You may e-mail your questions to her at phar...@suddenlink.net.