In the space of one week, three store clerks called me “sweetie” or “sweetheart.” As in “What can I get you, sweetheart?” or, in the case of the young hair stylist, “How do you like your hair cut, sweetie?”
My initial reaction was ambivalent, but mostly horrified. “Sweetheart” is an affectionate term and one that, when I was younger, I enjoyed hearing from waitresses in rural towns while driving through Nebraska. But in hip Boulder, that’s not the norm. Was I emanating some kind of helpless vibe? Was it the broad-brimmed embroidered hat that perhaps seemed old-fashioned, that framed my face to look endearing (not an adjective most people would apply to me), especially now that I’m wearing glasses?
Did I hesitate too long when answering the clerk’s question about how much hair I wanted to have cut off? Or was I too slow to insert my credit card in the chip reader? Was this interpreted as elderly confusion? In any case, I found it disturbing, as if I had gone over some line now, where I’m regarded as cute rather than strong and capable. It felt like a huge change in status in how the world regards me—or any older person.
As my mom got older, into her 90s, she welcomed the “sweetie” and “honey” endearments from others, mostly the staff at the senior facility where she lived. But by that time she had dementia, and her confusion left her isolated, not always able to understand what was going on in her world. She was happy for any bit of attention thrown her way and sometimes willingly played the part of the “cute” old lady, smiling and nodding at everyone she saw. It was disconcerting for me to see this onetime smart and capable woman, who had raised seven children, acting more helpless than I knew she was, even with dementia.
When I was writing and editing a newsletter for seniors, we had a section that offered short happy news, often a video clip. The young woman who designed the website often sent me videos that she had found on YouTube and found amusing. In what I would call “senior porn,” the videos showed residents of a senior facility singing and dancing to a popular rock song, preferably something racy. Obviously, the designer found it “cute” that men and women with gray hair, wearing cardigan sweaters or pearls, would be mouthing slightly dirty words and moving to a heavy, rock beat.
But after posting two or three of these videos, I had enough. I’m sure the participants in these videos (there’s a whole series of them, like videos of cats or dogs) enjoyed the experience. But it felt like I was witnessing some loss of dignity, like I was laughing at them at their expense.
It’s hard to keep your dignity as you get older. So much can go wrong, both physically and mentally. That’s why it seems important to hang on to self-respect. You can call me old, tell me I’m getting hard of hearing and sometimes confused, but don’t call me sweetie.