Have you ever found yourself talking to an older adult, using terms like “sweetie,” dear” or “honey”? Or, maybe you automatically start speaking at a louder volume, perhaps with a more deliberate enunciation of words?
This is referred to as “elderspeak.” It is when an older adult is spoken to as if he or she is a child with limited understanding.
You might hear that kind of speech by a health care worker, a service worker, or even a friend or family member. While it might be unintentional, the result can be very detrimental to the recipient.
A Yale University researcher on the effects of elderspeak, Becca Levy, says the practice “sends a message that the [person] is incompetent, and begins a negative downward spiral for older adults who react with decreased self-esteem, depression and withdrawal.”
This type of speech is received as being condescending and even disrespectful to older adults. It can be damaging to their mental health and well-being.
For those living with mild to moderate dementia, they can be even more negatively impacted by this type of language, becoming aggressive or uncooperative, according to the Yale report.
Reflecting on interactions I have regularly with “older” adults, I tried to recall whether I am guilty of using elderspeak. Of course, I am. But my experience at the Area Agency on Aging quickly taught me that elderspeak is a fast way to lose the respect of the people I work with daily.
Yes, I might sometimes use a term like “honey,” but only if it’s a two-way street, earned by sincere friendship.
At a community event last week I had the pleasure of sitting at a table with a woman I’ve looked up to most of my adult life.
She has been a mentor to me in public and community service, and our paths have continued to cross over the years.
Someone at this event said to our group, “You know, ‘Mary’ just turned 100 years old.” I laughed, because I thought it was obviously a joke. Maybe she is in her early 80s?
Well, you probably saw this coming, she is indeed 100 years old.
In all the time I’ve known her, she was never an “older” person in my life, just a special person. Maybe it’s because I’ve known her a long time, so we have aged at the same rate.
She is still the same person I met all those years ago. We talk about local government, our communities, computer classes and many other things when we get together.
Elderspeak is something we should all be mindful of. In our longer-term relationships we’re typically less likely to use elderspeak, as we’re more aware of the growth of the person we’re talking with.
The challenge comes when we’re meeting an “older” person for the first time. I suggest beginning your conversation as you would with any adult.
Speak in a normal tone unless they indicate they aren’t hearing you well. When appropriate, ask them how they would like to be addressed? Look for a quick link of commonality, instead of assuming their life must be different from yours, simply due to their age.
Elderspeak is just one example of ageism, which is the stereotyping and/or discrimination against individuals or groups based on their age. It might be good to keep in mind that the standards we set in our relationships will likely be reflected back to us in a few short years.
If our children, grandchildren or even young colleagues see us talking differently to an “older” person, we are prompting them to practice ageism.
Pat Arter is senior volunteer program director of Region IV Area Agency on Aging in Southwest Michigan. Questions on age or independence services? Call the Info-Line for Aging & Disability at 800-654-2810 or visit www.areaagencyonaging.org. The Generations column appears each Sunday in The Herald-Palladium.