What is elderspeak, and is it inappropriate?


Adults may face various challenges as they age, from reduced physical capabilities to cognitive decline. As they age, their younger loved ones are undoubtedly more concerned for their welfare than in years past. 


This level of concern is prevalent for older persons who suffer from memory loss diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Unfortunately, many are unaware of how to care for their loved ones in these delicate situations properly. This can often lead to insensitive care methods, such as talking to older adults using “elderspeak.”


If you’re unfamiliar with the term elderspeak and why this form of communication is deemed inappropriate, continue reading below to learn more about it and how to avoid practicing it with the older persons in your care. 


What is elderspeak?


Elderspeak is defined as a style of speech used by younger adults toward older adults using simplified words and terminology. 


This style often involves speaking to an older person slowly, condescendingly using terms of endearment and a high-pitched tone of voice, similar to how one would communicate with an infant or young child. 


Concerningly, elderspeak is a common practice for individuals with older persons with dementia and Alzheimer’s in their care. An older adult’s cognitive response and memory recall may result in younger adults treating them as children or “infantilizing” them, mistakenly believing that simplifying terms will be more helpful when communicating. 


Some elderspeak examples are as follows:


  • Referring to an older person as “honey,” “sweetie,” “dear,” or similar terms of endearment in an overly dramatic or condescending manner.
  • Calling an older person “cute” or “adorable.” 
  • Using “we” or “us” when referring to a single person.
  • Assuming the older person you’re speaking to is helpless. 


Why elderspeak can be harmful

Generally, people who use elderspeak when communicating with older adults mistakenly believe that using such simplified language and endearing names is a helpful, even gentle, way of getting information across. However, this form of communication achieves the opposite result. 


Even though this older person is living with a memory loss disease, they are still adults and should be treated like one by those in their care. Speaking to grown adults as if they were children will usually come off as patronizing, condescending, and degrading, not just to the person you’re communicating with but to others around them. 


Aside from simply being inappropriate, using elements of elderspeak when communicating with older adults can be harmful in other ways, listed below:


Invokes depersonalization


When looking after an older adult, care workers and family members should focus on providing person-centred care, where they cater their actions and behaviour to the needs of the individual. 


By using an inappropriate form of communication like elderspeak, you may begin to think of this older person in your care in vague terms, neglecting to adhere to their specific wishes. 


It’s important to remember that these older citizens have unique personalities. They have personal preferences and opinions that should be considered when making decisions about their care. 


These older ones should always be consulted, and their opinion should always be considered when deciding how to handle certain situations.


Can imply a power dynamic


When caring for older individuals with memory loss, one of the most important things to consider is our tone of voice and demeanour when speaking to them. 


By using elderspeak, we may portray an imbalanced power dynamic, making it appear that we are in control and believe this person to be helpless. 


While an older person may be in a position of required care, it’s vital to remember that they are a grown adult who has lived a whole life and garnered much experience and wisdom over the years. 


While they may need more help than when they were younger, they are still individuals and should be treated accordingly. 


Can further amplify challenging behaviours


One of the most significant cautions against using elderspeak is that it can sometimes amplify challenging behaviours from the older person in your care. 


According to recent studies, elderspeak has been said to increase agitation and frustration, which can result in overreactions to ordinary situations, such as yelling or physical aggression toward the caregiver. 


This drastic reaction is more common for older ones in the later stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Still, the feelings that elderspeak can invoke in an older person can be the same at any stage of their care, creating a tense environment for both parties.


How to avoid using elderspeak


Most often, younger adults who use elderspeak when communicating with older ones aren’t trying to be disrespectful or inappropriate. Still, it’s essential to realize how this type of language can come across. When caring for an older person, you must treat them with the dignity they deserve.


So, what can you do to communicate properly? Practice patience and speak with respect

If you’re finding that the person in your care is having difficulty comprehending what you’re saying, restate it in a way that makes it easier to understand without infantilizing your speech. 

Don’t raise the pitch or tone of your voice, and speak as you would to any other adult. 


By discussing more complex ideas through more straightforward sentences, you’re not assuming that the person you’re speaking to won’t understand but that your words may need to be phrased differently. 


Final thoughts


Elderspeak is a way of speaking to older adults using simplified language, terms of endearment, and raised pitch and tone that often comes across as condescending. This form of communication often causes older adults to feel frustrated and degraded. It should be avoided by those facilitating their care.


Focus on speaking to older persons with patience and respect, and remember that despite their need for extra care, they are still adults and should be treated like one.

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