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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Senior bullying

For San Diego's North County Times

In my last column I praised Escondido High School for the bottom line on their sexual harassment policy: "Sexual harassment is based upon the impact on the victim. It is not based on the intentions of the perpetrator."

I thought of that last week when I stood in line at the checkout stand of our local grocery store. No, I didn't see sexual harassment there. I watched a woman, looking to be in her late 70s, subjected to elderspeak, a kind of unintended bullying of seniors.
"Hello, how are you today?" a standard cashier's greeting, spoken at normal speed and volume before eye contact.

Then, after her customer struggles with the payment keypad, the clerk notices who she is and raises her voice, speaking more slowly, word by word. "Can I help you, dear," she asks. "You have to press the button with the little green arrow on it after you put in your number. Here, dear, let me do it for you. Can you tell me your phone number, dear?"

Judging from the look on her face during the cashier's overly solicitous efforts to help her enter her telephone number, identifying her as a shopper's club member, eligible for discounts, what the lady probably heard was: "You're old, hard of hearing, and have a failing mind. So I'll speak to you as I would a child."

Finally, as a reward for taking her receipt, the older lady gets a patronizing farewell: "Now, you have a good afternoon, dear."

The fundamental assumption behind elderspeak is that older people are cognitively impaired, needing "help," and must be spoken to very slowly and loudly. To paraphrase Escondido High's sexual harassment policy, the impact of elderspeak on an older person depends on what is heard, not on the speaker's good intentions.

I'm guessing the lady who'd been publicly humiliated didn't file a complaint. If she had, the cashier would probably tell her boss she was just trying to help a grumpy old lady and promise to be even "sweeter" to her next elderly customer.

Yale University professor Becca Levy says of elderspeak: "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." Her survey of 660 people over 50 in a small Ohio town found those with positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer, exceeding the beneficial effects of exercising or not smoking.

Store managers who value their older customers should train their sales clerks to drop the sweet-talking belittlement of elderspeak and replace it with simple friendliness and common courtesy.

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