I admit, I had no idea what ‘Elderspeak’  term meant until I read this article in the Telegraph.

Apparently it is

defined by researchers as overly caring, controlling and infantilising communication – bears many similar traits to “baby talk”, including simplified grammar and vocabulary and overly intimate endearments.

Maybe it’s just the circles that I move in but it’s not something I’ve come across a great deal. I can’t imagine myself ever calling someone I work with ‘sweetie’ or ‘dear’. But I can’t imagine myself saying that to anyone at all – let alone someone I was actually employed to work with as a professional!

image zappowbang at flickr

According to a study quoted in the newspaper article

such verbal ageism can harm longevity by delivering a self-fulfilling message that older people are incompetent, frail and feeble, sending them into a negative downward spiral, researchers say.

This is where the study makes much more sense to me. Language is enormously influential. It harbours the attitudes that we hold dear and sometimes it is a ‘looking glass to the soul’ where we might not necessarily want it to be.  By talking to adults in child-like terms we are indicating that we somehow have less respect for their capacity to understand and perhaps to the decisions that they make. It is not only patronising but it indicates clearly that we are making assumptions about someone else’s’ ability to understand.

I have to say that I don’t use babytalk either. I personally find that children respond better when they are not patronised so the same thing holds true. Except children are more likely to have a family member speak up for them if they feel the treatment they are receiving is not appropriate.

The study in question is described further in The New York Times.

a long-term survey of 660 people over age 50 in a small Ohio town, published in 2002, found that those who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer, a bigger increase than that associated with exercising or not smoking. The findings held up even when the researchers controlled for differences in the participants’ health conditions.

In those terms it is very difficult to ignore. It isn’t just about the words that escape from the mouth as much as the effect that they have. I have to say, as well, there are some people who call EVERYONE dear, love and sweetie, regardless of whether they are 6 or 96. That’s not really the point though. I see it more as an issue about people who modify not only their attitude but their language specifically when they are working with older adults.

There may or may not be cognitive impairment but that doesn’t entitle a person to less respect. Language can be simplified without being overfamiliar or condescending. And it does matter. If it makes someone feel that they have less validity as an individual, it is a part of the process of stripping away the humanity that is there.

The  Telegraph article finishes with the insight of one of the respondents to the study saying

“But I believe that the people who heap these endearments upon us are reacting to their own fears of ageing in a youth-oriented culture. My advice, darlings – get over it.”

Which says it a lot better than I could have.

image pamelaadam at Flickr

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6 thoughts on “Elderspeak

  1. Thank you for that. While I can’t say I have never been guilty of the above I can say that I attempt to maintain their dignity and value them for their experiences. All too often in health care, staff assume that if someone is over a certain age that the family should make decisions not the patient. Staff often skip over talking to the patient and go straight to the family about advance directives and health care decisions. Not okay in my opinion. Even mildly demented folks can make decisions and should be involved in their care. Good to remember.

  2. Every now and then I catch myself doing that to my clients. And it’s good that I’m aware of it, but it’s something I need to watch more. Not calling them sweetie, but just using a tone of voice that could be condescending and I would normally reserve for children. Interesting that there’s a term for it.

  3. Thanks for that, lcswmom and SD. I think it’s just interesting to be aware of it as much as everything. I hadn’t heard of the term before I saw that article!

  4. I used to work with a social worker who always squatted down by the chair of an older person she was talking to. She had one of those voices for the job too, extending her vowels and using a sort of sweet tome. She’s a senior practitioner now, I try not too think about her, it depresses the hell out of me

  5. My mum used to be a school teacher; she now has Alzheimers, but she is very acutely aware of tone of voice. One day, Gordon Brown was on the telly speaking in a very unctous sort of voice, and Mum turned round to the telly and announced, ‘You’re a bum!’ We all fell about laughing. Some things are hard wired..

  6. I can just picture that, Caroline!
    Julie – that is quite funny. And you are right that tone of voice is definitely something that can be picked up!

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