Avoid the temptation of elderspeak

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.

When many people talk to older adults, they speak in an exaggerated, sing-song way, using oversimplified words and nicknames such as “Honey,” “Sweetie” or “Buddy” in place of the person’s name. While they may not mean any disrespect, addressing seniors in this way can be detrimental to their mental health and may lead to resentment.

This way of talking to seniors is called elderspeak, and it is often compared to using babytalk when speaking to young children.

What makes elderspeak so harmful is that it implies a sense of power by the speaker and a sense of helplessness on the part of the person being addressed. In some cases, younger people may not even be aware they’re doing it, and in others, they may see it as a form of affection. However, to many seniors, elderspeak conveys the idea that they are feeble and must be pitied by the speaker.

This leads to anger and frustration.

Elderspeak comes out of the speaker’s belief that the older adult they are speaking to has a limited ability to understand them. As human beings, we naturally modify our speech to meet the situation in which we are speaking. We do this to be sure that our words are understood. If we believe we are speaking to someone who has difficulty understanding us, we use simple words and often speak louder than our normal tone.

The problem is that many older adults are fully capable of understanding the speaker, and addressing them in this way implies incompetence and makes them feel like children. They may also feel depersonalized by the cute nicknames used in place of their actual name.

Elderspeak may also make older adults living with Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia more resistant to receiving care and lead to an increase in agitation and aggressive behaviors, since, unfortunately, the techniques the speaker is using to make their speech more understandable are actually making it harder for the senior to comprehend.

Elderspeak can lower a person’s self-esteem and lead to feelings of depression if that person comes to believe that they are no longer in control of their own lives.

It is important to be respectful and thoughtful when speaking with older adults. There are many ways to convey a message without being patronizing or condescending. When speaking to seniors, especially those who may be cognitively impaired, it is best to keep sentences short and not convey too much information at once.

If complicated ideas must be addressed, the important points should be repeated, and they should be rephrased as needed to get the speaker’s message across. Speakers should avoid ambiguous language or using phrases that can be misinterpreted. The speaker should talk directly to the senior and use a normal tone of voice. While it is acceptable to speak loudly if the listener is hard of hearing, the tone and pitch of the speaker’s voice should remain even.

Also, affectionate nicknames should be avoided to prevent the older adult from being depersonalized or infantilized.

Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines in familiar surroundings.


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