If you are around a toddler for any length of time, you probably end up saying things like “Now Tommy, be careful when eating that; it might be too hot” or “Time to take a nap. You have been busy today.” How about when you talk to someone whose first language is not English, so they may have a hard time understanding. What do you do? Well, I know I say something like this, slowly and with a raised voice, “HOW ARE YOU DOING TODAY?” And mind you they do not have a hearing impairment. We all know this, but for some reason we think if we just say it loud enough, just maybe, they will understand English.

Now what happens when you talk to an older adult? Do you talk very slowly? Does your voice raise an octave higher- borderline baby voice tone? Do you talk much more loudly, because you assume they have a hearing problem, when they might not necessarily? These are all examples of elderspeak.

What is Elderspeak?

Elderspeak is slow simplified communication, sometimes with a sing song cadence that sounds similar to baby talk, which is directed towards older adults, especially those with Alzheimers or dementia.

The Following are Some Features of Elderspeak:

  • Using a sing-song or baby voice
  • Speaking loudly (if that person does not have a hearing impairment)
  • Speaking slowly
  • Using the pronouns “we” “us” or “our” like for instance “How are WE doing today?”
  • Using terms of endearment such as “dear” “sweetie” “honey” or “chief”
  • Simplifying syntax (sentence structure) or vocabulary
  • Answering questions for the older adult, such as “You’d like to go to bed right now, wouldn’t you?”
  • Talking for the older adult

It is natural for us to shift the words that we use, and our body language or our tone, depending on the situation and the individuals we are interacting with every day. Think about it. You talk differently to a supervisor, than you do with a spouse or a sibling. This is something we probably do not even realize that we are doing. So when speaking with an older adult, it may seem natural and innocuous if your communication style possibly resembles elderspeak, but there can be ramifications.

Research Findings on Elderspeak

Becca Levy, a professor and researcher at Yale University studies the health effects that negative messaging has on older adults. In one of her studies, it was found that when older adults are exposed to negative images of aging and words used such as “forgetful” or “feeble” performed significantly lower on memory and balance tests and also showed higher levels of stress. Researchers have also found that elderspeak can lead older adults down a path where they react with decreased self-esteem, depression, withdrawal and the assumption of dependent behaviors. Additionally, several studies have shown that when elderspeak is used, there is an increase in challenging behaviors with people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s. The studies found that they were much less cooperative and/or receptive to care with displaying behaviors such as agitation, frustration, calling out or physical aggression. Unfortunately, individuals who have dementia or Alzheimer’s are more so subject to elderspeak. Loss of memory necessitates compassion, not pity or feeling like they are less than. No one likes the feeling of being pitied.

Aspects of elderspeak can be beneficial for some individuals, but overall, it is patronizing in nature and can come across as disrespectful. Sadly it is far too common for individuals to view older adults as senile and just simply non productive members of society. We need to treat older adults as the wise, mature adults that they are, with minds, interests and experiences of their own. Yes, on the outside their bodies have aged, but that vibrant, engaging, competent person is still there on the inside. It is important to remember that we need to continue to communicate with them as we would with any other adult. There will, of course, need to be some adjustments made in the communication style, as we do with all the varied people in our lives. However, it is imperative to keep in mind that we would not use any of the above elderspeak aspects when communicating with other adults in our lives. For instance, using the words such as sweetieor dearcan, at times, be viewed as belittling the older adults or treating them as incompetent. It is important to note that some older adults may not mind it, so always ask their preference in the matter.

For the most part, when elderspeak is used, it is not coming from a place of bad intent. Generally, it is simply a lack of awareness and knowledge. I think it is a great reminder that in any situation, especially challenging ones, to take a step back and see things from another person’s perspective. When we take a moment to do this, it is here where empathy and insight grow. How would we feel if the roles were reversed and someone was talking to us in this manner? I think it is safe to say that it would irritate us. Therefore, it is good to keep in mind that no matter how much our aging loved one may be declining physically and/or mentally, it is prudent to use words and a tone of voice that will keep their dignity intact.