Suppose that in the next few years a group of younger adults, say 20ish to 40ish, gets the chance to visit the Formerly Famous Persons’ Assisted Living Facility. They visit during the evening meal.
In the dining room they immediately see Shirley McClaine (presently 84), Willie Nelson (now 85), Gene Hackman (now 88), Jack Nicholson (now 81), Clint Eastwood (presently 88), Maggie Smith (now 83), Judy Dench (presently 83), Arnold Schwarzenegger (presently 71), and Hulk Hogan (65 and aging fast).
This is a selected group of visiting adults. Each won a contest, and each gets to dine at a private table with one of the formerly famous. But what happens is this: each one of the formerly famous has a mishap during dinner. Coffee is spilled on the table or food falls off a fork or a spoon drops to the floor. That sort of thing.
So, if these visitors talk to them like some people speak to the residents at the NOT Formerly Famous Person’s Assisted Living Digs, they might say something like the following.
To Willie Nelson: “Did you have a nice day, Mr. Willie? We did, didn’t we? But we look tired? We mustn’t forget to take our vitamins every morning and evening.” Not only does he leave the table, but he goes outside, and as he boards a tour bus, he’s singing, “On the road again!”
To Shirley McClain: “Uh oh Shirley, that’s such a nice pink blouse. Maybe we should put a bib on to keep it clean. You agree, right? It’s hard to keep food on our fork.” Shirley, who believes in reincarnation, not only slaps the visitor, but tells her she’s going to slap her again in her next life, only she won’t know it’s her.
To Jack Nicholson: “I’ve seen you in that movie, Bucket List. Not when it originally came out – I don’t think I was born then – but I’ve seen it on TV or Netflix. And we all saw you shuffle in here a few minutes ago. Walking like that, we do need a Bucket List, don’t we? Déjà vu, huh?” Jack chases the visitor down the hall with an axe that he produces from under the table. Even though the young man hides in an empty room, he knocks a hole in the door, sticks his head in, and says, “Here’s Johnnie!”
To Arnold Scharzenegger: “Look, buddy, we really do need to eat our vegetables. We eat way too many protein bars, don’t we? Yes we do. Admit it.” Arnold throws the young man across the room where he lands on his back and can’t get up. Then he says, “I’ll be back…just as soon as I take a nap.”
To Hulk Hogan: “Hulkie, honey, let’s be careful. We’re getting bread crumbs all over our lap and on the floor.” He then tries to twist this person into a crescent roll.
To Judy Dench: “Can I help you cut your meat. We girls so need our protein at your age.” Dench then gives a line from one of her James Bond movies, “How the hell did you find out where I live?”
To Clint Eastwood: “Ooh, let’s be careful with our coffee, dearie. It’s really hot! We could scald ourselves.” He doesn’t say, “Make my day.” The last words the visitor hears are, “You’ve MADE my day, dearie!”
To Gene Hackman: “Now, hon, are you ready for dessert? You are, aren’t you?” He says, “I’m not your hon, but if you say one more word, I’m going to become Attila the Hun!”
To Maggie Smith: “We’ve hardly eaten anything. Come on, don’t be so contrary. Take a bite.” She gives a line from Downton Abbey in return, “I’m a woman. I can be as CONTRARY as I want to be.”
The above are several examples of what is now called “elderspeak.” Experts urge us not to talk this way to anyone or to let them talk this way to us. It is demeaning. It assumes that the older adult is dependent, frail, weak, incompetent, childlike, AND suffers from memory problems, hearing problems, and energy problems. It also assumes that the speaker has greater control, power, value, wisdom, and knowledge. Some of which is true, no doubt, but NONE OF US WANTS TO HEAR IT!!!
Studies show that when older adults are exposed to elderspeak, their performance levels on various tasks decrease and their rates of depression increase. Even people with moderate to severe dementia can tell when people are speaking down to them, and it causes them to be CONTRARY.
Features of elderspeak include speaking slowly, speaking loudly, using a sing-song voice, inflecting statements so that they sound like a question, using “we,” “us,” and “our” instead of “you”, using pet names like “sweetheart” or “hon,” shortening sentences, simplifying vocabulary, and answering the question for the elderly person. In other words, talking to the elderly as though they are BABIES!
Treat the elderly with respect. The other day I stopped by to visit a friend of mine who has Parkinson’s and a bit of dementia. He’s in a care unit that has a lock on the entry door so the patients, most of whom are still in enough of their right mind, won’t run away. The caregivers were new and didn’t recognize me. After they buzzed me in, I said, “I’m Detective Johnson, here to take Don Harrison into custody.”
There were five or six young female caregivers gathered in the entryway. I wish my garage door opened as fast as their eyelids flew up. Their eyes were as large as saucers and their jaws were halfway to the floor as I walked by and headed toward Don’s room. I said, but not too loudly, “Just kidding.”
After my visit, I came back out to the unit’s entrance. All the caregivers were looking at me with smiles. I said, “I forgot my handcuffs, and Don won’t go peaceably. I’m going to have to leave him with you for now. You treat him with respect. You know, don’t you, that he’s connected.” And he is connected to an oxygen tank, but it’s alright for them to wonder if I meant the mafia.