“Elderspeak”: Guarding Against Condescension Towards Our Clients

Posted on Categories Legal Education

Yesterday’s New York Times had an article discussing the phenomenon of “Elderspeak,” defined as the belittling, condescending, and falsely nice and cheerful way many people talk when they are addressing older adults.  The pattern is easily recognizable to anyone who has every accompanied a gray-haired relative on any errand or to an appointment: quick use of the elderly person’s first name, unnaturally loud voice, talking slowly, or unwanted endearments like “dearie,” “gramps,” or “good girl.”  According to researchers quoted in the article, these methods of address are not only resented by the elderly people who are faced with them, but elderspeak may actually produce more negative images of aging.  “And those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival” (Dr. Becca Levy, quoted in the article).

While the article is particularly critical of health care professionals for falling into the elderspeak trap, it also cites examples from other settings, including stores and restaurants.  Lawyers are not singled out, but there are lessons for us here as well. 

I came across this article as I was prepping for my annual Trusts & Estates class where we discuss advance health care directives, and where we begin to talk about utilizing devices such as revocable trusts to help clients protect themselves in the event of future incapacity.  Not surprisingly, the casebook is full of examples of elderly patients with various forms of dementia or other disabilities.  Often, these elders are supported, for good or bad, by younger more able relatives, and at some point a lawyer is brought into the mix to assist with planning documents.  It occurs to me that reading all of these materials may well be conducive to subconsciously attributing declines in functioning to all persons above a certain age.  This is especially true where the average age of my student readers is probably about 25, an age where (I dimly recall) even 40 seemed old. 

Of course, it is our job as lawyers to use legal remedies such as advance health care directives, wills, trusts, or powers of attorney to protect the elderly clients and their families and to soften at least some of the harsh realities brought about by declines in health.  Our students and young lawyers need to learn how to do this.  But the New York Times article was a timely reminder to me that we as lawyers must also take care to respect elderly clients as individuals with dignity, and we should avoid slipping into the condescending elderspeak that is so easily rationalized as being kind or reassuring.

The article also serves to remind me as a teacher that young lawyers, in a misguided effort to be both friendly and authoritative, might find it easy to slip into elderspeak, and that it is part of my duty as a teacher to warn them against it.

2 thoughts on ““Elderspeak”: Guarding Against Condescension Towards Our Clients”

  1. I think we frequently speak in comparable ways to other kinds of people with limited power – the poor, immigrants, members of minority groups, etc. As bizarre as it might be, we even seem to speak more loudly to people in these groups. How fascinating (and troubling) it is to realize that something we just take for granted – spoken language – is an instrument in our complex system of dominance.

  2. You are quite right that this linguistic pattern is directed at groups other than the elderly! It is especially troubling and ironic that doctors and lawyers, who are supposed to use language to communicate, heal and help, are in fact using language to dominate people who may have less social power.

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