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Elderspeak: What It Is & Why To Avoid It

Elderspeak: What It Is & Why to Avoid It

Have you ever seen someone speak to an elderly adult in a lighthearted, simple tone? Maybe you’ve even done it yourself, not knowing any better. This is known as elderspeak and is very similar to baby talk. 

It’s always best to avoid using elderspeak, even if your loved one has memory or cognitive problems. Here’s why this speech pattern can be harmful and upsetting to aging adults. 

The Negative Impact of Elderspeak

Imagine someone speaking to you using baby talk or similar speech patterns. You’d likely feel like your dignity and humanity were being stripped away. While people who use elderspeak may have the best of intentions, it only serves to degrade seniors. 

Many seniors, even those with memory conditions or signs of cognitive decline, can understand regular speech perfectly. They might not be able to respond as well, but they know what you’re saying. This is also why you should never talk about your loved one in a negative way in front of them — they can understand you. 

Elderspeak is not only insulting, but it can also be actively harmful. Infantilizing aging loved ones can have serious consequences for their mental health and your relationship with one another. 

Confusion and Mixed Messages 

Speaking to your elderly loved one like a baby may send them confusing messages. Things like saying “we” instead of “you” or their name can interfere with their auditory comprehension skills. 

You should talk to your loved one like you’d talk to any other adult. Avoid mixing up pronouns or using overly simplified language. Be direct, clear, and mature when you ask or tell them something. 

Embarrassment and Depression 

Older adults with cognitive problems may feel embarrassed, humiliated, or depressed when spoken to like a baby. They might not be able to communicate these feelings properly, resulting in emotional outbursts or quiet shame. 

Consider how you would feel if someone were speaking to you as if you couldn’t understand more than very simple sentences. You’d likely feel humiliated. Elderly loved ones are no different. They often feel as though their dignity has already been robbed from them through old age. It’s best not to pile onto those feelings with elderspeak. 

Ageism and Stigma 

Elderspeak plays into the narrative that past a certain age, people are no longer capable or dignified. Ageism is a huge problem in elderly care settings and in homes with family caregivers. 

In some instances, stigma related to aging can become dangerous. Elderly adults may not want to seek the care they need due to stigma and ageism. Others may suffer mistreatment or infantilization in care settings where they’ve lost control of their agency. 

Don’t add to the already-large body of ageism in our society. Instead, communicate your ideas clearly, and do your best to respect your loved one’s independence and dignity. 

What to Do Instead 

You might be wondering how you should communicate with elderly adults who are dependent on you for help. Here are some tips on what to do instead of using elderspeak. 

Practice Empathy

It’s easy to view an aging adult like you’d view a child or other dependent person. Practicing empathy by putting yourself in their shoes can go a long way in this regard.

If you were elderly and slowly losing independence, how would you want to be treated? Chances are you’d want to participate in your care whenever possible and be spoken to like the adult you truly are. This thought exercise can help inform you of the best practices for elder care. 

Be Clear and Direct

While elderspeak is demeaning, you should ensure your language is easy enough for your loved one to process. This means being very direct and concise. 

Avoiding unnecessary words and phrases helps reduce confusion in cognitively impaired seniors. It also makes your message clear and leads to better behaviors and outcomes from your loved one. 

Use a Normal Tone of Voice 

Avoid pitching your voice as if you’re talking to an animal or a baby. Use an even, clear tone that doesn’t disrespect or exclude your loved one. Keep in mind that you’re still talking to an adult, even if they have communication and cognition struggles. 

Care With Respect: Dignifying Senior Loved Ones 

As you navigate your loved one’s care, don’t forget to uplift them using normal, dignified speech patterns. They may not be able to express it, but they appreciate it all the same. 

If you or your family member is considering in-home care as part of a plan to age in place, contact Family Matters In-Home Care today for a free consultation.  Our team is dedicated to supporting your family and helping older adults enjoy life in the comfort of their own home for as long as possible.

Some of the services offered by Family Matter In-Home Care include: Alzheimer’s & Dementia CareBed & Wheelchair Transfer AssistanceCompanionshipHousekeeping & Meal PreparationPersonal CareRecovery Care, and Transportation.

Serving the San Francisco Bay Area and Greater San Diego, Family Matter In-Home Care has offices throughout California including: Campbell, CARoseville, CASan Marcos, CA, and San Mateo, CA.

Carol Pardue-Spears

Carol has worked in the healthcare field for more than forty years. As a Certified Nursing Assistant, she worked for El Camino Hospital in the cardiac unit, Los Gatos Community Hospital, The Women’s Cancer Center in Los Gatos and several home health and hospice agencies. Carol founded Family Matters in 2002 to fill a deficit she witnessed in high-quality, in-home services and care.

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