Ageism Takes Flight

As I was returning from a quick 24-hour, quasi-business trip from New York last night, a fellow passenger was served up a heaping order of ageism, with a side of elderspeak, on the plane ride home. (We really just wanted our postage-stamp sized bags of peanuts after the half-hour delay.) Elderspeak describes not how older adults talk, but how people talk to them. Or, perhaps more accurately, how others talk down to them. A seemingly frail, white-haired, older woman was traveling alone, flying home after a visit with her adult son and his family. The flight attendants were courteous, but their communication styles – almost, sort of  – bordered on ageism and elderspeak.  (In some ways, it’s completely ironic – considering this group of professionals has had their own issues in the past with ageism, weight-ism, etc. with the major airline carriers.)

Anyway, it reminded me how we all need to be more aware of this kind of creeping ageism.  While well-intentioned, we diminish our elders when we call them “sweetie” and “dear.”  As senior move managers, we must be especially attuned to the way we speak with our older adult clients.  NASMM offers seminars on this topic at our annual conferences and through NASMM University audio education. In fact, one of the keynote speakers at the 2010 NASMM Conference in Las Vegas was David Solie, author of the highly-regarded book, How to Say It to Seniors.   David’s presentation reveals the critical and unappreciated development tasks of older adults, a discovery that unlocks the communication code between generations. It inspired everyone in attendance to further commit to effectively communicating with their older adult clients.

One of the guiding principles of NASMM membership is found on the NASMM homepage:  “As the only professional association in North America devoted to helping the rapidly increasing 55+ population with middle and later life transition issues, NASMM members are committed to maximizing the dignity and autonomy of all older adults. ” As NASMM members well know, dignity begins with the very first words we speak to our clients.

My fellow passenger last night, the older woman whom the flight attendants repeatedly called “young lady,” smiled knowingly at me as she interacted with them throughout the flight. She was clearly aware of the patronizing, ageist tone, but was too gracious to call them out on it. She likely was also aware that I was more than a bit interested in the whole scene – hope I wasn’t too conspicuous.

As the airplane came to a screeching halt in Chicago, she got up and yanked her carry-on suitcase out of the overhead bin.  She and I smiled knowingly at each other one last time, and then we both disappeared into the crowd inside the airport. Young lady, indeed.

For more information on elderspeak, please check out this article.

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