The first job Becca Levy had out of college was in the geriatric ward of a psychiatric hospital. Part of her work was to comfort elderly people being treated with electric convulsive therapy for depression; another part was sitting in on patient conferences.
The experience left her with many questions, "including about how the older patients were treated," she says. Now a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, Levy has done a number of studies showing how negative stereotypes of aging, in the media and the cultural mindset, have a profound affect on the lives of elderly people.
"As I've become more interested in how society treats the elderly, I think I've become more sensitive to observing the kind of language people use to talk about aging in general, their own aging, and that of other people they encounter," she adds. Levy says that patronizing attitudes and "elderspeak" -- speaking to elders as if they were children -- can affect their competence and lifespan.
"Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging," she recently told The New York Times. "And those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival."
Yet Levy believes that many of those who use "elderspeak" -- including healthcare workers -- don't understand that it can be offensive, and destructive. "I've heard some people say they want to be able to use terms of endearment -- it's their way of expressing their affection for older people -- but I've heard older people say it can be belittling," she says. "In terms of healthcare settings, it's probably a good idea to ask people how they want to be addressed -- what is most comfortable for them -- and to set up a communication agreement."
If she had known this when she first began to work with older people, Levy says, "I might have thought about ways to try to empower some of the elder patients more -- maybe in the team meetings, maybe just in conversations with some of them. That's one of the messages of this research: Finding ways for our culture and society to empower elders is something we should work toward more actively."