Apparently it’s called “benevolent prejudice”, the tendency to see older people as “friendly” but “incompetent” and to treat them accordingly. And apparently, women encounter this phenomenon more often than men.
I remember my mother-in-law being treated like this, not infrequently, although always in the spirit of kindness. She lived to be nearly 97, with her full faculties until the end. She was a quiet and gracious woman, and always enjoyed being part of our social gatherings, of which there were many. During some of those occasions I would be taken aback when every so often someone would say, “Isn’t she wonderful,” expressing admiration for her ability, as far as I could gather, to converse. I knew people meant well, but it always struck me as patronizing. I realize that we’re not good at projecting ourselves into the future, but do people really think that they’re going to regress so much as they age that being able to continue to participate in life will seem deserving of special recognition? Sorry, but that’s not showing respect; without meaning to, you’re being condescending.
When she was in the hospital for the last time, still fully alert, some of the hospital staff would speak about her to us, right at her bedside, instead of to her or instead of at least including her in the discussion. It was as if she were invisible. And when she was addressed, it was often with the appellation “dear”.
You may be guessing where I’m heading with this. Fast forward a number of years and I find myself irked not on behalf of my mother-in-law, but – you got it – because people are starting to call me “dear”. (Granted, not people who know me well, who undoubtedly would not think that is a very fitting moniker for me!)
To date these interactions have most often been at the dentist’s office, the eye doctor’s office, or at a checkout counter, and so far always from women. I struggle with whether to say what’s on my mind or to stick with silently saying through clenched teeth, “I’m not your dear.” But I know they don’t mean anything by it – except that they think I’m old, i.e. friendly but incompetent. So I say nothing. But recently the dentist checking my teeth, a young woman I had not encountered before, spent more far time talking to the hygienist about me than to me, and when she did speak to me it was in a decidedly distracted and condescending way. Disrespectful. I am seriously thinking of changing dentists – and explaining why!
We have been reminded in spades lately, thanks to all the “Trump talk”, that many men objectify women as sex objects, younger women that is. It appears that many people – maybe even more women than men – objectify old(er) women as being nice but not fully competent. And most old(er) women are too nice to remind people that they have had a lifetime of interesting experiences, thank you very much, and that their name is not “dear”.
As I mentioned earlier, my mother-in-law was a quiet and gracious woman. And she may not have always heard the comments I heard. Still, those well-intended people who spoke down to her, albeit without meaning to, got off easy. They were lucky that my mother never lived to be an old woman; she wouldn’t have responded so graciously. But watch out, world, because she left her daughter behind. And her daughter is not taking kindly to being spoken to as if she has lost some of her faculties. For starters, please don’t call me “dear”!