Don’t Use Elderspeak to Talk to Seniors

Grandmother holding her grandchild on her lap
Don’t use elderspeak when talking to the seniors in your life.

Watch what occurs at your next family get together when a new mom places her infant in someone’s arms. The person is likely to shift automatically into baby mode: a high-pitched, sing-song voice, overly-simplified speech, and exaggerated facial expressions. Of course, this is quite normal and actually good for an infant’s growing brain.

Hopefully, however, when that baby’s great-grandmother enters the room, family members avoid responding similarly. Yet it happens so frequently, and can be so harmful to seniors, that there’s 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 just to listen without interrupting as the younger people spoke to them – thus leaving no hint to the speakers that they were experiencing any problems understanding what was being said – overwhelmingly, the speakers resorted to using elderspeak.

It’s important to note as well that seniors regularly resist using elderspeak with one another. Research has shown that for a lot of older adults, elderspeak conveys superiority and a cold attitude.

Why It’s Harmful

Simply put, elderspeak can be perceived as patronizing and belittling. It communicates feelings of incompetency and inferiority to seniors, instead of the admiration and respect they deserve. While typically well-meaning and intended to communicate endearment, it commonly has the opposite effect.

What to Do Instead

  • Carefully consider how to address the seniors in your life. Many seniors find terms like “young lady”, “dearie“, or “honey” to be offensive.
  • Use care when modifying the way you speak to a senior loved one according to individual need. For instance, speaking clearly and slowly while facing an older adult with hearing loss is beneficial. A high-pitched voice, however, can in fact further distort the words. An older adult with memory issues can better follow the conversation if it is broken down into short, simple sentences and yes-or-no questions. This can very easily be accomplished without resorting to baby talk.
  • Don’t forget there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as each person has unique preferences and challenges. An honest and open conversation with the person about how they would like to be addressed and spoken to is the best path to ensure you’re engaging with them appropriately.

JFS Care’s senior home care team in Burbank and the surrounding areas places a great emphasis on respectful interactions with every senior in our care. Contact us online or call us at (213) 383-2273 for an in-home consultation to discover how we can help promote independence for seniors with personalized in-home support. See our full service area here.