Communicating with Older Adults: Avoiding Elderspeak

Caregiver Talking to Senior AdultLike an automatic shift into low gear, we often revert to baby talk when communicating with seniors—regardless of the person’s ability to understand and respond. This is called “Elderspeak.” It is common, especially between young caregivers and older residents in a nursing home. Researchers in the field of Gerontology have documented that it can diminish an older person’s confidence in his or her abilities. Yet, the sad thing is, young speakers have it half right. Some aspects of elderspeak do compensate for natural changes in the cognitive skills of our elders. But most of the time, it is actually confusing and even harmful to talk this way. Elderspeak is a form of ageism that is under scrutiny by researchers and service providers alike.

What Is Elderspeak?

These are the kinds of adjustments a young person may make when addressing an elder:

  • Using a singsong voice, changing pitch and tone, exaggerating words.
  • Simplifying the length and complexity of sentences.
  • Speaking more slowly.
  • Using limited vocabulary.
  • Repeating or paraphrasing what has just been said.
  • Using terms like “honey,” “young lady,” or “dear.”
  • Using statements that sound like questions.

This cultural behavior is also called “baby talk” because it is so similar to the way we talk to very young children. It is meant to be helpful and supportive, but older folks often believe it is patronizing.

Is Elderspeak Harmful?

Elderspeak implies that an older person is not competent. Miscommunication is occurring and it is his/her fault. Most aspects of elderspeak actually decrease comprehension. It is confusing when a word is exaggerated. It is also hard to understand a statement that sounds like a question. Talking too slowly affects a senior’s ability to focus on the main point and retain information. These cultural tools do not have a basis in the science of communication.

What Is Helpful?

Today we know a great deal about normal changes in thinking and communicating as a person ages. Science has established that older adults experience changes in their working memory. This affects the way they hear and understand what is said to them. Because of this, we know that seniors will have better comprehension if you repeat and paraphrase what you are saying and simplify what you are saying, remembering to be explicit.

One Size Does Not Fit All

There are many positive ways to talk to our elders. Using a rich and varied vocabulary makes any conversation more interesting, and adults are able to learn new words over the course of their whole lifetime. Avoid using “honey” or “dearie”—this keeps the conversation respectful. People with hearing loss do need amplification, but it is best to avoid raising the pitch or tone of your voice because this distorts the words. Express complex ideas in a chain of simple sentences. Repeat the main point or say it again another way—don’t just assume that the older
person won’t get it.

The rule of thumb when communicating with seniors is: one size does not fit all. Our elders have a variety of capabilities. To keep them in the communication loop requires a few adjustments, but it’s no longer guesswork to know what helps and what doesn’t.

Click the download button below for a PDF chart showing elderspeak words and their universal word alternatives:

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Information courtesy of NASMM (National Association of Senior Move Managers).