MIDWAY:I’ll know I’m old when

You never know at my age (69 in January) how people are going to treat you. Quite often now, people offer me their seat on crowded tube trains, but these are usually people almost as old as I am, perhaps trying to convince themselves of their own youthfulness, or youngsters from ethnic minorities who possibly haven’t been in here in the UK long enough — or have been brought up too well — to have absorbed the prevailing culture of selfish indifference. The last young person to offer me a seat was a teenage Muslim girl in a headscarf.

I always reject such offers, just as I always answer no when I am asked in the supermarket if I would like help in filling my carrier bags, for I don’t like to be thought of as old. I wonder when I will start to welcome this sort of attention. That moment, if it comes, will probably be when I find it too exhausting to stand, or when people start to call me “dear” or “sweetie”. For there is evidence that such belittling talk saps the morale of the elderly and makes them feeble and submissive.

According to research published in America, “elderspeak”, as the practice of addressing old people as babies is known, “begins a negative downward spiral for older persons, who react with decreased self-esteem, depression, withdrawal and the assumption of dependent behaviours”.

One survey carried out in a small town in Ohio found that people over 50 who managed to retain a positive attitude to ageing lived on average seven and a half years longer than others, more than if they didn’t smoke or took lots of exercise. In a nursing home for people with moderate dementia, it was noted that patients tended to scream and become aggressive if staff used phrases such as “good girl”, or asked them sweetly how they were feeling.

The British government is launching a major review of legislation to protect the elderly from abuse, but naturally this won’t cover undermining them with baby talk. This is something the elderly must try to combat on their own. One method, recommended by a 68-year-old woman in California, a police psychologist, is to sprinkle one’s conversation with profanities. “That makes people think, ‘This is someone to be reckoned with,’” she claims.