The Harm in Talking to the Elderly Like Babies

The Harm in Talking to the Elderly Like Babies
Depressed senior man sitting with female carer

We all need to understand how disrespectful talking to the elderly like babies is, and to avoid this common practice.

Watch what happens at the next family members get together when a new mother places her baby in someone’s arms. The person is likely to shift instantly into baby mode: a sing-song, high-pitched voice, exaggerated facial expressions, and overly-simplified speech. Of course, this is quite normal and actually beneficial to an infant’s growing brain. Sadly though, it is also quite common to hear people talking to the elderly like babies too. This can be so harmful to the elderly, that there’s a word to describe it: elderspeak.

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

It’s worthwhile to note as well that older adults regularly refrain from using elderspeak with each other. Studies have shown that for a lot of older adults, elderspeak conveys superiority and a cold attitude.

Why Is Elderspeak Harmful?

Simply put, elderspeak could be regarded as patronizing and belittling. It conveys feelings of incompetency and inferiority to seniors, as opposed to the respect and admiration they deserve. Although typically well-meaning and meant to convey endearment, it usually has the opposite effect.

What to Do Instead

  • Thoughtfully consider how to address the older adults you know. Many older adults find terms such as “young lady,” “dearie,” or “honey” to be offensive.
  • Use proper care when modifying the manner in which you speak to a senior loved one according to individual need. For example, speaking clearly and slowly while facing a senior loved one with hearing loss is beneficial. A high-pitched voice, however, can actually further distort the words. A senior with memory issues can better follow the conversation when it is broken down into simple, short sentences and yes-or-no questions. This can easily be accomplished without resorting to baby talk.
  • Keep in mind there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as every 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 way to ensure you are engaging with them appropriately.

Hired Hands Homecare places a great emphasis on respectful interactions with each older adult in our care. Contact us at (866) 940-4343 for a free in-home consultation to learn how we can help promote independence for seniors with customized in-home support. We’re pleased to serve older adults throughout Marin, Sonoma, Napa counties, and the Tri-Valley.

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