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Seniorgram: Sending a Message on Senior Issues

Barbara Bodzin, LifePath Executive DirectorBarbara Bodzin, Executive Director

The Power of Language and the Negative Effects of “Elderspeak”

Talking down to older adults is not only disrespectful, it can be detrimental.

“Elderspeak” occurs when an older adult is spoken to as if they are a child or a pet with limited understanding. This phenomenon is not uncommon in interactions with health care workers, service personnel, neighbors, or even family members. In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, Anna I. Corwin, an anthropologist and professor at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, noted that elderspeak “sounds like baby talk or simplified speech” and is, in fact, a symptom of how older adults are often perceived.

According to Corwin, elderspeak includes characteristics including “a slower speech rate; exaggerated intonation; elevated pitch — raising your voice as if everything is a question; elevated volume; simplified vocabulary and reduced grammatical complexity; diminutives, like calling people ‘dear’ or ‘sweetie’; pronoun substitution like using the collective pronoun ‘we’; and lots of repetition.”

“Speaking to an elder should be no different than speaking to any other adult.”

“Americans tend to view and treat older adults as no longer productive in society. And that’s how we define personhood, as an adult who is a productive member of society,” Corwin said. Corwin’s insights were the result of a study of the linguistic communication that contributes to successful aging which included spending seven months in a Catholic convent infirmary where the nuns, noted for more successful aging than secular peers, did not engage in elderspeak. The caregivers instead used conversational tones, made jokes, told narratives, and essentially treated the care recipient as a “meaningful [person] whether they could understand them or not.”

According to Becca Levy, a researcher on a study on the effects of elderspeak at Yale University, the practice “sends a message that the (elder) is incompetent and begins a negative downward spiral for older adults who react with decreased self-esteem, depression and withdrawal.” Elderspeak has also been shown to increase the likelihood of challenging behaviors in those with dementia and is correlated with poorer health outcomes is general.

In its guide "Communicating With Older Adults," the Gerontological Society of America says you don't need to change your vocabulary to use simplified words. As a general rule, older adults maintain their existing vocabulary or continue to improve it. They have no greater problem understanding complicated words than do members of other age groups.

The solution is straightforward: speaking to an elder should be no different than speaking to any other adult. Word choices matter. Instead of ‘honey’ or ‘dear’, elders want to be addressed with a title and their last name: “Ms. Smith” or, with permission, by their first name. Often times people are unaware of behaviors and style of communication; taking time to reflect on speech will enhance and foster respectful and empowering relationships.