“Hi sweetie, how are you doing today?”
“You are SO cute!”
“Do we need to use the potty?”
We expect to hear this language in our daycares, but these phrases and questions are unfortunately too common in senior living settings. Recently addressed by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, the phenomenon of using “elderspeak,” or “baby talk,” when speaking to seniors is an aggravating problem that can even lead to health issues. Whether intentionally patronizing or not, this language needs to be addressed as we continue to evolve as an inclusive and respectful society, especially as our senior population grows, and the issue is becoming more widespread.
Though elderspeak is most prevalent among well-meaning caregivers helping patients with dementia, many older adults without cognitive decline have experienced this type of speech. The higher the level of caregiving the senior requires, the more likely they are to experience elderspeak.
Here are a few speech patterns to look out for:
• Use of nicknames, such as “sweetheart,” “darling” or “honey”
• Slow speech, or speaking extra loudly
• Exaggerated intonation
• Overly simplified vocabulary
• Overuse of the pronoun “we”
• Too much repetition
In addition to being just plain irritating, many seniors find this speech pattern to be demeaning, demoralizing and condescending. Many seniors live fulfilling and productive lives and haven’t lost cognitive abilities, yet those younger than them – caregivers, acquaintances and even well-intentioned loved ones – sometimes fall into the speech patterns noted, conveying a sense that the senior needs things “dumbed down” to understand.
A few unintended side effects of elderspeak may include a decline of a person’s dignity, self-worth, and even cognitive abilities. Not only is elderspeak frustrating, but it can also lead to seniors not speaking up when needed for fear of not being heard, or losing confidence in their own abilities to figure things out or take care of themselves. This can have unnecessary negative impacts on their health and everyday quality of life.
At Trillium Woods in Plymouth, we are highly cognizant of elderspeak and its negative consequences on aging – an issue we urge caregivers and other senior living communities to be mindful of as well. There are many training resources available to residential communities on appropriate interactions with residents, and elderspeak should be treated no differently.
When it comes to choosing a caregiver or senior living community, we encourage seniors to pay attention to interactions and take note of this type of language. Those who have experienced this speech pattern and feel bothered should feel empowered to speak up in an honest and direct dialogue with the person using elderspeak, to inform them of their feelings and discourage the behavior from continuing.
I encourage anyone who interacts with older adults at work, in their families and in other settings to take a step back and think about the way you talk with elders. Talk to them the same way you would any other adult, and let the senior tell you that they are not able to hear you, or they need you to slow down your speech pattern so they can understand. And non-verbal communication is just as important as verbal communication: be aware of excessive smiling and nodding, or being overly touchy-feely with someone.
Older adults are valuable members of our society, teeming with life wisdom, career experience, strong opinions and stories who should never be overlooked or undervalued. Transitioning to a stage or season of life when adults need care again can be difficult to navigate for many involved, but it’s important to be considerate of how we establish and maintain respect for one another throughout the process. Join us in making a difference in how we interact with our elders, to help improve their quality of life and reap the benefits of their inclusion in society. Someday, we will all be in their shoes.
Cari Brastad is the health and wellness navigator at Trillium Woods in Plymouth.