23 Jul 2022

How to respect your elders

Our perception of what constitutes ‘old age’ is changing. Older people are staying healthier for longer and pride themselves on retaining their youth, so the business of respecting our elders can be tricky. In times past, older people occupied an elevated position in society and were treated deferentially, but this can now seem disproportionate or even patronising. However, some people will expect this and you must trust your judgement.

In practical matters, always be patient. When travelling on public transport, it is perfectly correct to offer your seat to a person who appears to need it more than you, but don’t be offended if they decline and don’t let this put you off in the future. If you are in conversation with someone who is hard of hearing, avoid shouting or speaking more slowly than usual. Speak clearly and articulately, and be guided by them. Be patient: older people may eat more slowly and walk more slowly than their younger companions.

If you are an older person, show reciprocal patience and respect for your juniors. A polite response will go a long way. Reacting badly to what you consider to be an over-the-top demonstration of respect will embarrass and discourage younger people from acting kindly in the future. Remember, cantankerousness is not a privilege of old age.

Golden Rules for Relating to Older People

• Never make the crass assumption that old age is inevitably partnered with senility. Talking to older people as if they’re confused infants is the height of bad manners. Confusion and vagueness are not inevitably, or necessarily, the exclusive preserve of old age, and you should – as with all social encounters – assume (unless proven otherwise) that the person you are talking to is of sound mind.

• Similarly, never assume that older people are deaf as posts. True, some older people are hard of hearing and, if that is the case, it will become immediately apparent (frequent repetitions of ‘pardon’, head craned towards the speaker, hands held to the ear, bizarre responses, or simply instructions to “speak up!”). If none of these symptoms are displayed, assume that you are talking to someone who can hear what you are saying and speak at a normal volume. It is unforgivably rude to shout at an older person as if he or she is an imbecile.

• Different times, different manners. It is probably safe – unless you are instructed to the contrary – to assume that the older generation expects slightly more reticent and formal manners.  This means taking the conversation at a slower pace, refraining from instant intimacy, censoring off-colour jokes and stories, not swearing, and being respectful of, for example, religion (which might play an important role in the older person’s life).

• Be very careful about names. Many members of the older generation are very uncomfortable about the universal informality of today’s society. They were brought up to believe that using a person’s title (‘Mr,’ ‘Mrs’, ‘Dr’, ‘Reverend’ etc.) was indicative of the respect that was owed an older person, and they find the instant use of first names insulting and disrespectful. When first meeting an older person, it is probably safest to adopt the default position of using a title and – when the time seems right – to actually ask if it’s acceptable to use the first name (“Do you mind if I call you Mary?”).

• Be patient. Everybody slows down as they get older and everyday tasks (walking, eating, making the tea, finding the correct change etc.) will inevitably take longer. You must accept this with good grace.

• Always offer help and assistance to older people. If somebody refuses, don’t be deterred in the future – there will always be people who are proud of their independence and reject offers of assistance, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

This means offering your seat on public transport, helping older people to pack at the supermarket checkout, carrying bags (off the train, for example), holding open doors and waiting patiently, offering an arm if the going is unsteady.

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