Sweetie, Lay Off the Sugar Print E-mail
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Tom Murphy

Sweetheart, we've gotta talk.

It's about those terms of endearment you've been tossing around. They're not only condescending. It appears they're making people sick, literally.


Remember that old joke about the salesman who shouts so that an older customer can hear him? And then the old guy replies: "I'm old, you idiot. I'm not deaf!"

Well, it's the same thing with calling someone "sweetie" or "dear." They're not your girlfriends. They're just older.

The New York Times just took at look at the phenomenon of "elderspeak" citing several studies that show the terms may be doing real harm.

“People think they’re being nice, but when I hear it, it raises my hackles,” 83-year-old Elvira Nagle of Dublin, Calif., told the old gray lady, as the Big Apple's No. 1 paper is known.

Of course, this isn't just about the edlerly. Gen Y doesn't like to be pigeon-holed as Gen Y or the Internet generation.  And baby boomers often find the term baby boomers condescending, too. They prefer just boomers, if you must say something.

Sugar & Health
But it's those sugary sweet terms for elders that cause the most problems. Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, is writing a book about how terms like "sweetie" and "dear" can be so demeaning that they affect the health of older people.

“Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging,” she told the paper. “And those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival.”

Levy and her colleagues based their findings on a 2002 survey of 660 people over 50 in a small Ohio town. They found those with a positive perception of aging lived 7.5 years longer, which is a bigger life extension than is associated with exercise or not smoking.

In a second study to be published soon, the good doctor found that people exposed to terms like "feeble" and "forgetful" tended to do worse on memory and balance tests.

Health care workers are often the first to use terms like "sweetie" to guide their older patients around, according to Kristine Williams, a nurse gerontologist and associate professor at the University of Kansas' School of Nursing.

She told the Times her videotaped research showed patients were less cooperative or receptive to care when they were addressed like infants. Tapes showed patients screaming, grimacing or otherwise refusing to follow staff directions.

The researchers concluded elderspeak leads to decreased self-esteem, depression and withdrawal.

So, darling, the next time you want to ask your elder for something, try "please" instead of a spoonful of saccharine.