Accidentally Talking Down to Seniors Through Elderspeak

These examples of talking down to seniors can be harmful and should be avoided.

Watch what occurs at the next family get together when a new mom places her baby in someone else’s arms. The individual will likely shift immediately into baby mode: a high-pitched, sing-song voice, overly-simplified speech, and exaggerated facial expressions. Of course, this is perfectly normal and actually beneficial to a baby’s growing brain.

We hope, however, when that child’s grandmother enters the room, loved ones refrain from responding similarly. However it takes place so often, and can be so damaging to older adults, that there is a word to describe it: elderspeak.

A recent study by Susan Kemper, a professor who specializes in gerontology at the University of Kansas, paired elderly listeners with younger speakers. Even with  the seniors’ instructions just to listen without interrupting as the younger people spoke to them – thus leaving no suggestion to the speakers that they were experiencing any problems understanding what was being said – overwhelmingly, the speakers resorted to elderspeak.

It’s interesting to note as well that seniors regularly refrain from using elderspeak with each other. Studies have shown that for a lot of older adults, elderspeak conveys superiority and a cold attitude.

Why It’s Harmful

Simply put, elderspeak could be regarded as patronizing and belittling. It conveys beliefs of inferiority and incompetency to older adults, rather than the respect and admiration they deserve. While typically well-meaning and meant to convey endearment, it usually has the opposite effect.

What to Do Instead

  • Carefully consider how to address the senior loved ones in your life. Many older adults find examples of elderspeak such as “young lady,” “honey,” or “dearie” to be offensive.
  • Use caution when modifying the way you talk to an older adult in accordance with individual need. For example, speaking clearly and slowly while facing a senior loved one with hearing loss is helpful. A high-pitched voice, however, may actually further distort the words. A senior loved one with memory loss can better follow the conversation if it’s broken down into short, simple sentences and yes-or-no questions. This can easily be accomplished without using baby talk.
  • Don’t forget there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as every person has unique preferences and challenges. An open and honest conversation with the person about how they would like to be addressed and spoken to is the best way to ensure you are engaging with them appropriately.

Golden Harmony’s experts in elder care in Raleigh, NC and surrounding areas are focused on respectful interactions with each and every senior within our care. Reach out to us at 919-426-7522 for an in-home consultation to learn more about how we can help promote independence for older adults with personalized in-home support.

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