Watch what happens at your next family gathering when a brand new mom places her infant in someone else’s arms. The person is likely to transition immediately into baby mode: a sing-song, high-pitched voice, exaggerated facial expressions, and overly-simplified speech. Of course, this is perfectly normal and actually beneficial to an infant’s growing brain. Hopefully, when that infant’s great-grandfather enters the room, loved ones refrain from reacting similarly. However it happens so often, and can be so detrimental to the elderly, that there is a word to describe this way of talking to older adults: elderspeak. 

A recent research study by Susan Kemper, a professor specializing in gerontology at the University of Kansas, matched elderly listeners with younger speakers. Even with the seniors’ instructions to simply listen without interrupting while the younger people spoke to them – thus leaving no hint to the speakers that they were having any problems understanding what was being said – overwhelmingly, the speakers resorted to elderspeak.

It is worthwhile to note as well that seniors consistently refrain from 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 could be regarded as patronizing and belittling. It conveys feelings of incompetency and inferiority to seniors, as opposed to the admiration and respect they deserve. Although typically well-meaning and intended to communicate endearment, it often has the opposite effect. 

Tips for Talking To Older Adults

• Carefully consider how to address the older adults that you know. Many older adults find terms such as “young lady,” “honey,” or “dearie” to be offensive. 

• Use caution when modifying the manner in which you talk to a senior according to individual need. For example, speaking slowly and clearly while facing a senior loved one 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 if it is broken down into simple, short sentences and yes-or-no questions. This can very easily be accomplished without falling back on baby talk.

• Remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, as every person has unique preferences and challenges. An open and honest conversation with the person about how precisely they would like to be addressed and spoken to is the best path to ensure you are engaging with them appropriately.

Charter Home Health, providers of exceptional in home senior care in Philadelphia and the nearby areas, places a great focus on respectful interactions with every senior within our care. Contact us online or call us at 215-935-6321 for an in-home consultation to learn more about how we can help promote independence for seniors with in home senior care in Philadelphia and the nearby communities.