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Condescending to Older People – Is This the New Normal?

By Ann Richardson May 15, 2022 Lifestyle

A few months ago, my husband was approached by a young researcher, doing a study on the frail elderly and clearly keen to approach all such people with the right attitude.

Yet once you have the need for a particular ‘attitude’, instead of a normal interaction with another human being, the trouble begins.

Her concern was to determine whether he was frail enough for the study. Unfortunately, she asked questions in such a way as to suggest that she thought he was probably a bit dim.

This did not go down well. He, being a former academic, was trying to get her to define her terms.

In the end, she decided he was not frail enough, which I am sure was right.

I would make a good guess that she was glad to be rid of him. But not more than he was glad to have avoided involvement with her.

The whole experience did not leave a good taste in his mouth. Nor mine, when he told me about it.

We do not want to be talked down to.

The View from ‘Below’

The experience brought back memories of many years ago.

When my son was just two years old, I realised he had a mindset that I had never seen in any other child of my acquaintance. It took some watching and some thinking, but I finally got it pinned down.

He simply did not accept child status.

As far as he was concerned, he was not less equal than the larger people he came into contact with – whether parents, childminders, teachers, our friends or anyone else.

Yes, he needed to learn from them (when he wanted to) and yes, they would insist on bossing him about, but somehow, in his mind, he was their equal.

And he squirmed with visible discomfort when confronted with clear condescension.

This continued as he grew older. As a young child, he loved collecting facts of all kinds and had a good memory for them. Even at the age of five, he had no reluctance to correct teachers when their facts were incorrect.

Nor us, of course.

I remember trying to explain this to friends. If we found ourselves on another inhabited planet, I suggested, we would soon realise that we needed to learn the language, the customs, the history and the belief systems of the local people.

BUT we would be darned if we would be talked down to. We were their equals ­– we just had a lot to learn.

Why shouldn’t a small child feel the same way?

And Why Older People?

Yes, there is a natural tendency (of which I think we were less guilty than many other parents) to talk down to children. But then it seems to go into reverse as we age. There is an even worse tendency to condescend to the old.

There seems to be something about a lot of wrinkles that brings out a wish to talk down.

This is exacerbated when the older person has the bad luck to be in a position of dependency, such as being hospitalised. The “how are we today, Ann?”, asked in a high voice, is not something I have any wish to experience.

This tendency to condescend to old people, when you think about it, is very odd. We are the people who have seen so much more of life and have handled so many more difficult situations.

What happened to the reverence with which ‘elders’ were traditionally regarded? Weren’t we once assumed to have some wisdom?

We should fight back, like my son, whenever we can.

Have you experienced people being condescending to you? In what circumstances? How did it make you feel?

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Pamela Oliver

Today I was minding my own business, carrying my groceries toward the train station on my way home. I am 68 years old, have grey hair and walk roughly 15,000 steps a day so I’m fairly fit.
A younger woman approached me and in a sickeningly condescending voice asked: “Are you all right? Are you needing help with your groceries?” The voice was high pitched and slow, and decidedly talking down to me as if I might be a bit slow.
I felt stung with humiliation, as this person apparently thought I was presenting as fragile and helpless, when in fact I was not feeling that way at all. I blew up at her and told her to mind her own business and go away. She was outraged that I didn’t appreciate her helpfulness.

Pam Oliver

Yes!!! People especially assume older people are not tech savvy… I am tired of people insisting I need their help to check out a library book, or perform self service in the supermarket. I hate being addressed as Love and Dear, always in a sickly sweet voice!

The Author

Ann Richardson’s most popular book, The Granny Who Stands on Her Head, offers a series of reflections on growing older. Subscribe to her free Substack newsletter, where she writes fortnightly on any subject that captures her imagination. Ann lives in London, England with her husband of sixty years. Please visit her website for information on all her books: http://annrichardson.co.uk.

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