By Trena Winans, Education & Community Outreach Director
I have a friend who just loves “old people” because they’re “so cute.” She’ll refer to them as “adorable” and has been known to go up to strangers and give them a hug because they’re “so sweet.” These kinds of references always made me uncomfortable, but I’m sorry to say, I never spoke up or called the behavior out as ageist.
My friend is far from the only one with this particular response to elders. A quick search on Facebook reveals a page titled “Cute Old People” that has garnered over 4,700 “Likes” and another called “Cute Old Men.” Here is one comment from the Cute Old People page: “old people are very cute..there is no difference between old people and kids…very cuteeeee.”
Here’s the thing—there is a huge difference between older adults and kids. They are adults and deserve to be treated as such. No one should be condescended to because of their age, particularly those with a vast reservoir of experience. It is not a far leap from treating elders as adorable little people, to ignoring their thoughts and wishes as though they were babies or puppies.
Truth be told, I prefer the people who love “cute old people” over the mean-spirited ageists who are disgusted, dismissive or angered by the thought of aging people. Nevertheless, this attitude is not ideal and can be offensive and harmful. Infantilizing elders may start with well-meaning comments, but it can lead to dismissing anything an elder has to say.
So what can you do? First, I would suggest checking yourself. If you are in the habit of calling older ladies “dear,” “sweetie,” “honey” or “young lady” it may be helpful to know that many women don’t find that charming, but are too polite to tell you how irritated this makes them. They are under no delusion that they are young and know full well that you are aware of that too. Self-awareness is a perfect first step to celebrating aging without accidentally becoming condescending or trite.
If, like me, you have people in your circle who love “cute old people,” consider pulling them aside and helping them examine what about older adults they find admirable. Encourage them to try to compliment individuals on their own merits. Rather than lumping all older adults together as “adorable,” to admire a person’s gorgeous head of gray hair, their luminous smile, sparkling eyes or their loving relationships.
If a person is directing remarks to you about how cute and sweet you are, it can be a little more challenging. First, keep in mind they mean well and are not trying to offend you. Sometimes, they are really expressing their wishes for their own future, such as a desire to still be holding hands with the one they love as they get older. However, it is ok to kindly tell someone that although their intention may be pure, it makes you feel belittled. Perhaps share with the person calling you “young lady” that you appreciate the sentiment, but you are getting older and loving it!
It is a fine balance to communicate the difference between celebration of age and condescension, but if we are ever to get past the most common and socially acceptable of biases, we will need to examine our own attitudes and be open with others about how their words make you feel. Maybe at first they will just think you are being “feisty,” but with enough people proudly celebrating their age and being clear in their communication, the message is bound to sink in eventually.