August 17, 2021

Learn how to avoid elderspeak with the seniors you love.

Watch what occurs at your next family gathering when a new mother places her infant in someone’s arms. The individual will likely transition instantly into baby mode: a high-pitched, sing-song voice, overly-simplified speech, and exaggerated facial expressions. Of course, this is quite normal and actually advantageous to an infant’s developing brain. 

We hope, however, when that baby’s grandmother enters the room, loved ones avoid responding similarly. Yet it happens so often, and can be so damaging to the elderly, 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, matched senior listeners with younger speakers. Even with the seniors’ instructions to listen without interrupting while the younger people spoke to them – which left no suggestion to the speakers that the seniors were having problems understanding what was being said – in a great majority of cases, the speakers struggled to avoid elderspeak.

It is worth mentioning as well that seniors consistently avoid elderspeak with one another. Research has found that for a great many older adults, elderspeak conveys superiority and a cold attitude.

Why It’s Harmful

Simply put, elderspeak can be considered belittling and patronizing. It communicates feelings of incompetency and inferiority to aging 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 seniors in your life. Many older adults find terms such as “young lady,” “honey,” or “dearie” to be offensive. 
  • Be careful when modifying the manner in which you talk to an older adult according to individual need. For instance, speaking clearly and slowly while facing a senior with hearing loss is helpful. A high-pitched voice, however, may actually further distort the words. A loved one with memory loss can better follow the conversation when it is broken down into short, simple sentences and yes-or-no questions. This can easily be accomplished without resorting to baby talk.
  • Remember there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as each 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 path to ensure you are engaging with them appropriately.

Continuum places a great focus on respectful interactions with each and every older adult in our care. Reach out to us online or call us at (314) 863-9912 or (636) 861-3336 for an in-home consultation to understand how we can help promote independence for seniors with customized home care in Ballwin and the surrounding areas.