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During several stints as a faithful visitor and hospital helper, I had an opportunity to inventory the terms of endearment with which my husband's mother had been tagged by various health-care workers: Sweetie; Hun; Little Lady; Little Dolly; The New Kid on the Block; Puddin' Pie; and, my personal favourite, Little Button.
Before I delve into the insidiousness and persistent stubbornness of elder speak in our health-care system, which, you might have guessed, is the subject of this week's column, I'd like to say a word or two about Mark's mother: She is -- I'm sorry, mom, but I have to come right out and say it -- pretty darn cute. If central casting put out a call for "Adorable Nonagenarian" or "Pocket-sized Senior Citizen," Harriet would be one of the fiercest competitors around.
Of course, being old and cute isn't all bad. I've watched Harriet work the "sweet old lady" angle to great personal advantage. But, for the most part, she is a serious woman, with a serious name, and I try to resist the urge to squeeze her cheeks, pat her on the head, or, most especially, talk to her as if she were a baby.
I challenge anyone at the Lennox and Addington County General Hospital or Kingston General Hospital to locate patient files for Mrs. L. Button, Mrs. P. Pie or Mrs. L. Lady. Those crazy broads, whoever they are, were nowhere near my mother-in-law's room. (But there was a rumour that butter tarts were being pilfered from the Auxiliary Cafe and my money's on Puddin'.)
"Why don't they just call me Harriet!" she said, finally having reached the point of total exasperation. My mother-in-law is a distinguished lady of the greatest generation, so she waited until the nurses were out of the room to vent.
"I don't know, mom," I sighed, pen at the ready. It was only a matter of time before someone called her Sugar Pie or Honey Bunch, rendering my annotated list of sweet-talkisms complete. But by then I probably would have quietly slipped into a diabetic coma, too lethargic to write down another word, such was the syrupy haze in the room.
As Harriet's patient valet, I should have said something. But I'm a cautious gen-Xer who avoids making waves in hospital unless it's a matter of life or death. I will not complain on anyone's behalf about uncomfortable beds, flimsy pillows or flat ginger ale. But if the Alaris IV pump starts beeping and flashing, I'll be the first person to haunt the nurse's station.
The truth is there's just no way for patients or their families to tell health-care professionals they've veered dangerously into elder speak and are killing people with phony kindness without running the risk of insulting them. The imbalance of power in hospital does not favour that level of outspokenness.
And why should we be the ones to do the communication coaching anyway? Call me idealistic, but it's 2015 and the senior tsunami has already drenched the shores of the health-care system, so why isn't genuine, respectful, communication between health-care workers and older patients already a consistent part of the game plan?
It's not for lack of training. Health-care workers are on the front lines of a growing cultural awareness about ageism and the dangers of elder speak. If anyone has the education and skills to put a stop to the saccharine madness it's doctors and nurses.
One of the reasons I think it's still a problem is that some patients seem to respond to, and even enjoy the baby talk. I watched Harriet's roommate, a woman in her late 70s, soak it up like a sponge. The cooing and gushing had me desperately searching for one of those blue plastic barf tubes.
And baby talk is contagious, which only makes matters worse. It spreads across the hospital faster than C. dif. By day's end, even I found myself talking to a woman I'd never met before in the cafeteria and calling her "Hun."
They say the best defence is a good offence. If you, or someone you love, is of a certain age and your preference is straight talk versus sweet talk, allow me to share a totally unscientific, yet still meritorious, observation from my bedside study on elder speak: Watch out for balloons and teddy bears. Nurses and PSWs who opt for whimsical scrubs seem to run the greatest risk of inflicting prosody on their patients.
If you see Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, my advice is grab your IV pole and run. And don't worry about your buttocks flapping through the gaping hole in your gown: You've gotta know someone's dying to call you "Sweet Cheeks," so why not give them good reason?
Michelle Hauser is a former professional fundraiser turned humorist and freelance writer. She lives in Eastern Ontario (Canada) with her husband Mark and their son Joseph. Please click here to sign up for her monthly Newsletter.