Elderspeak: Babytalk Directed at Older Adults

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“The doctors talk to me like I’m an old man,” my uncle grumbled.

“Mike,” said my aunt. “You’re 92. You are an old man.”
“I know,” he said, “but no one wants to be talked to like they’re an old man.”

The blog below is from guest blogger, Karen Austen.

About a year after I started volunteering at a skilled nursing home, I observed a set of new teenaged volunteers who came to help with a craft at the monthly meeting of the Red Hat Society. I heard several of the volunteers speak slowly and loudly, using a sing-song voice. In response, I saw many of the residents roll their eyes.

Unfortunately, I had flashbacks to when I also first started as a volunteer. I altered my speech inappropriately as well, hoping to be supportive but coming off as patronizing instead.

I have since learned to identify the features of elderspeak.  More importantly, I’ve learned to change my attitude.  At its core, elderspeak communicates a condescending attitude.  And from that attitude the person’s language might demonstrate the following features of elderspeak:

      • Speaking slowly
      • Speaking loudly
      • Using a sing-song voice
      • Inflecting statements to sound like a question
      • Using the pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our” in place of “you.”: “How are we doing today?”
      • Using pet names such as “sweetheart,” “dearie,” or “honey”
      • Shortening sentences
      • Simplifying syntax (sentence structure)
      • Simplifying vocabulary
      • Repeating statements or questions
      • Answering questions for the older adult: “You should like your lunch now, wouldn’t you?”
      • In other ways talking for the older adult: “You are having a good time on the patio today, I see. And you have your pink sweater on, which you love. Right?”
      • Asking people questions that assume role loss, idleness and powerlessness such as, “Who did you used to be? “What did you used to do?”

Elderspeak is the result of and contributes to misperceptions about aging:

        • It assumes that the older adult is dependent, frail, weak, incompetent, childlike, etc.
        • It assumes that the speaker has greater control, power, value, wisdom, knowledge, etc than the older adult listening.
        • It assumes that all older adults equally suffer from memory problems, hearing problems, energy problems, etc.

Public health experts have found that when older adults are exposed to the patronizing language of elderspeak, their performance on tasks decreases and their rates of depression increase. Other studies show that even people with moderate to severe dementia can tell when people are talking down to them, and it decreases their level of co-operation.

I have witnessed this myself.  One of the residents, who was a retired nurse struggling with dementia, was trying to care for another resident. The activity director and two certified nurse assistants tried to redirect her away from her neighbor’s apartment. The employees were using dulcet tones with her, and she quickly replied: “Don’t you get all sweet on me. I won’t be treated this way!”   People of all levels of cognition preserve the ability to read tone. Managing nurses might consider providing training on how to transform elderspeak into more effective acts of communication.

As the percentage of older adults increases in the US, the need for communicating effectively will be more apparent in many fields, not just health care. 2000 US Census data shows that Americans aged 65+ outnumber the combined populations of London, Moscow, and New York.

About a year before I started my gerontology program, I had the privilege to meet a friend’s nonagenarian mother who had traveled to Wichita from western Kansas. I unwisely raised my voice and spoke slowly to her: “HOW. ARE. YOU. TODAY?”  She shot back a very energetic, rapid-fire reply, putting me in my place. Since that day, I assume that older adults have full hearing and full cognition when I first address them. If their reply indicates otherwise, then I make moderate adjustments, but I still address them as independent, empowered individuals.

[This post was originally published at ChangingAging]


Have you caught yourself using elderspeak? 

Has anyone ever talked down to you before?  


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