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.
A version of this article was first published in my book The Granny Who Stands on her Head: Reflections on growing older, Glenmore Press. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.