Ageism: please don’t call me “dear”

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”!

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13 Responses to Ageism: please don’t call me “dear”

  1. Anne says:

    A white person who calls a black man the “NWord” in the South may in fact “mean well” and “intend no harm”. Someone who asks a 5th generation Chinese American where they “really come from” may “mean well” and be trying to “learn about culture”. But it’s still discrimination. Good intentions pave the road to damnation very well!

    At 55; I’ve now stood up to being called “dear, sweetie, hun” etc. some 15,000 times and counting (ie// 10-20X per day since I turned 50 and not a single time before in my life; not even in childhood). No I do not live in the South nor on the East Coast nor in the UK. Yes, I look far older than my age and its true that I don’t look like Helen Mirren; so clearly I”m getting it worse than average but I’m seen it happen to enough women 55 plus (and men 75 plus) to know that none of us will be spared.

    In the 15,000 and more times I’ve stood up to the gendered ageism, I always use the phrase “please don’t call me that” (ie// Please don’t call me dear, please don’t call me sweetie, please don’t call me huns, please don’t call me darling doll, please don’t call me cookie, please don’t call me cupcake, please don’t call me sweetheart, please don’t call me pumpkin, please don’t call me ‘that poor thing’, please don’t call me our dear sweet old love etc.). For someone reason, humour seldom works on the characters using the ageist sexist Elderspeak, still I feel some personal satisfaction the rare times I’m called them turkey jerky, hun bun, or hoss !! Of the more than 15,000 times, only five large young/er people threatened to assault me and threw me out of their businesses. I only go to management if the person persists with the insults or if there are major consequences.

    Plus don’t kid yourselves, that “dear” business actually ISN”T always intended benignly; plus research shows it leads to poorer mental health, poor cognitive status, lowered self-esteem and 7 years shorter life expectancy in the recipients. I’ve been called “dear” when refused jobs, called “dear” when refused service at an empty restaurant having been told “no dear, we can’t serve you, someone else may come in”, and refused medical care “no dear, we don’t have to check your heart huns, you’re just old”. I actually find it easier to handle when they just out and out say “get out you old bag”; mainly because I am old (and a feisty old bird) but I’m no one’s dear!!

    “Dear” is the first step in defining a person as powerless and without worth. Unless we all stand up to these belittling, condescending, patronizing and ultimately cruel and life shortening micro aggressions – we’re all headed for the nursing home or worse involuntary euthanasia. Read “How Not to Shoot Old People”; the involuntary murder of old/er women is already being called “tender” and a “mercy”!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Many thanks for your heartfelt observations, Anne. I can’t agree with you that any White person, from the South or anywhere else, may use the N-word without knowing they’re causing harm. However, as far as the use of the term “dear” is concerned, although I certainly haven’t had many experiences with it as you have, especially intentionally demeaning ones, I do hate it. So many, many thanks for your forceful discourse against ageism.

      • Anne says:

        Unfortunately we’ve had some prominent cases here in Canada where White persons have used the N-word and at least claimed that they thought that they were not intending harm. Probably they were lying to get out of losing their jobs.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Exactly. I don’t believe for a minute that they didn’t know that what they were saying was hateful, demeaning, and cruel. I can’t stand it when those thoughtless bigots get caught out and issue pathetic non-apologies that go something like, “I apologize if my words offended anyone. That wasn’t my intention.” Sure! 😡

  2. Roy McCarthy says:

    Yes indeed. I suppose I was as guilty as any when younger. Then I realised that old(er) people were young once and lived full lives, probably fuller than most can imagine. In their (our) latter years that’s not to be forgotten and our seniors ought to be recognised, addressed and respected accordingly.

  3. jennypellett says:

    Jane – what an excellent post! Total agreement from over here!
    Back in the day, in my first career, I was lucky enough to work for a generally mild mannered boss. However, if something had caused his displeasure- watch out – and we’d always know the signs as he’d address us sarcastically as ‘dearie.’
    No one has called me ‘dear’ just yet, but I’ll be ready and waiting for when they do!

  4. alesiablogs says:

    oh dear!!! Wait! I better not say that….Great post. Seems to me we are going backwards lately with all that has happened right in our faces on social media….I have kept it off most of the time.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Alesia, do you think anything will change in that regard after your election, or that that the lack of civility will continue to grow as a concern? To be fair, I don’t think the people being patronizing to older people actually mean anything by it at all. They don’t see their words or actions as patronizing. The lack of civility we’re witnessing is another matter all together.

      • alesiablogs says:

        I hope we can have civility return in the world of our politics. I do not think we have had it for a very long time. Doing no work which has been the norm on Capital Hill is getting very old with many. Having said that I never vote for a person who habitually puts his /her own interests ahead of themselves. Now that is a loaded statement by me because both candidates have their own issues in this area. Having said that–I need to vote for the person I feel is best qualified and that falls with the person with the experience. You can guess who i mean by that. : ) Yes. I agree about how people treat the elderly. There is for the most part no disrespect meant, but I know that being in the health care field , I watched firsthand some medical professionals be disrespectful to our elderly who need a lot of help. I believe there are those who forget one day that will be them. Enjoy your day Jane!

  5. DM says:

    My wife (who is not yet even 60) has also run into some of this when she’s out and about shopping. She (like you) is 100% on her game and was taken back by it..I’ll have to ask her how many times it has happen.. I hear you on this one. You’ll never ever hear me talking to you like this…ever.. 🙂 to this day, when I run into former teachers from school I still call them Mr and Mrs. R E S P E C T has been drilled into me.. I appreciated this post Jane…I can hear your mothers voice in this one. 🙂 DM

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