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After spending 30 years teaching writing and literature primarily to traditional-age college students (18-25), Karen decided to focus for the next 30 years on "the generation above me." Currently, Karen is a graduate student in Aging Studies at Wichita State University and a volunteer working with older adults in a variety of venues.

39 Responses

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  1. Allison
    Allison at | | Reply

    Thank you! I will share this with my first semester nursing students.

    1. Generation Above Me (@TheGenAboveMe)

      Allison, sorry it took me a while to check back with this article from a while ago. How wonderful that you train nurses. That’s so vital. All my best to you and your students. (Karen Austin)

  2. Marc Renaud
    Marc Renaud at | | Reply

    Thanks for writting this article. I found it after trying to understand why an ambulance driver talked to my grandfather as if he where a with a 3 year old toddler. I found the driver very rude. I bet it’s hard to be taken seriously when you get old because most people wrongfully think your stupid.

    We should talk to the elderly as if they are normal people, because they are. “Elderspeak” is a form of harassment.

    1. Generation Above Me (@TheGenAboveMe)

      Marc: I’m sorry to read that your grandfather was treated in a patronizing manner. Hopefully, more and more people can gain awareness of how their attempts to be supportive of “needy” people actually are disrespectful. Karen Austin

  3. Elizabeth Barnell
    Elizabeth Barnell at | | Reply

    I am so glad thIs issue is being raised. I have just tried to explain to Boots the Chemist customer care in England that as a 62 year old college lecturer I do not expect to be called “dearie” “sweetie” or “my darling” by the pharmacists. In Germany or Italy they could loose their job if they addressed mature citizens with unsolicited endearments. Boots responded by saying that they are sure staff did not mean to be patronising, but I tried to highlight that it is a form of benign ageism that needs to be addressed in staff training.

    1. Generation Above Me (@TheGenAboveMe)

      Elizabeth: I am sorry that the management dismissed your concern. Maybe if everyone who gets “dearied” lodges a complaint, the burden will finally shift to the employees and away from “overly sensitive customers.” It’s good that you spoke up. Karen

    2. Mitica Jones
      Mitica Jones at | | Reply


  4. janscherrer
    janscherrer at | | Reply

    Excellent piece, Karen. As a speech pathologist, I understand that blowing seniors away with a rapid speech rate is not appropriate, but neither is speaking to them as if they’re your hearing impaired toddler with special language comprehension needs. Reducing speech rate and allowing more time for processing can be done very by simply practicing patience and rephrasing as needed. I truly believe that much of this “elderspeak” is born of the notion of youth supremacy. In a nutshell, it’s totally wack!

    1. Generation Above Me (@TheGenAboveMe)

      Jan: Good to meet you! I took a grad class from a SLP professor who highlighted this issue, and then I read more on my own (given that I used to teach college English and took sociolinguistics). Yes, I concede that older adults can benefit from some adjustments to how speech is delivered. I wish that SLPs had a greater conduit for conveying information to the general public. It would be great if NPR or PBS did a regular feature or something! Keep up the good work.

  5. rosemary weston
    rosemary weston at | | Reply

    i just re-read this and it reminded me of some of the youtube video talks that teepa snow made about ways we talk to people with altheimers. it is well meant but so entirely lacking in understanding in how the other person receives this “well meaning” treatment. sometimes it is hard to put ourselves in someone elses place and there is so much misunderstanding of who we elders are…we are individuals first of all. maybe we need to politely and tactfully and possibly with humor, tell people when they use elderspeak. it might be useful to both sides and open up some real communication.

    1. Generation Above Me (@TheGenAboveMe)

      Rosemary, I need to go find that video by Teepa Snow. Thanks for the suggestion. I think that most people don’t realize that ppl with AD retain their ability to read tone and body language for a really long time. As a volunteer in a memory care unit, I observed a retired nurse who was a resident there call out the workers for trying to baby her. I tried to consider her view as valid and complex instead of labeling her speech as “non compliant behavior.” I’m still learning and growing in how I interact with people who have cognitive differences. I’m trying to remain a life-long student. Thanks for your insight.

  6. Sara
    Sara at | | Reply

    I am an student from the AGING 200 Erikson School of Aging and I believe this topic of “elderspeak” really needs to be addressed. You discuss the issues of elderspeak that when seniors are spoken to in a condescending manner, as though they cannot understand or have no agency of their own, it makes their performance decrease and their depression increase. While many aids, nurses, home health caretakers and volunteers are educated on what to do in a practical way and how to handle the various scenarios encountered in a senior facility, it seems as if this important aspect of healthcare is left out: that seniors are still human beings with cognitive understanding and social development. Even more so, many do not realize that what they are doing is detrimental to the patient’s physical and mental health. I feel strongly about this issue and I think those who provide services to seniors do not understand the negative consequences of this type of behavior. I believe that preserving the dignity of patients in care facilities is definitely an aspect of care, but many who use elderspeak do not understand the detrimental effects.

  7. Jan Brandom
    Jan Brandom at | | Reply

    What a wonderful article ~ I believe that the people I hear that use Elderspeak have the best intentions and do not realize the impact.

  8. m.garris-barlow
    m.garris-barlow at | | Reply

    I am one who is mindful of speaking down to any person. May this be an elder, a child a neighbor or a stranger.
    In this field of professional I am ever mindful of the proper language used with an elder. To give an elder dignity,repsect,honor is a path I am seeking to journey along. How is the use of the wording it to belong in these conversations for example- this is a day we are going to enjoy it together join us for a cup of tea?
    The common usage of we/us are ok? are having a meal? we are…? could be also a language phrase of inclusion-parts of this article I am in disagreement with-overall excellent points of interest 1

  9. Gaea Yudron
    Gaea Yudron at | | Reply

    I have included a skit on how to respond to ageist language, including elderspeak, in my musical revue on aging, A New Wrinkle. The material in the skit is rather humorous and sometimes provides quite practical suggestions for responding to condescending remarks and styles of speech. The song Hip Hip Elder’s Rant also includes some material on elderspeak. I feel that it is important for all of us older adults to develop effective ways to counter ageist presumptions.

    1. Marcia Barhydt
      Marcia Barhydt at | | Reply

      Hi Gaea; Did you mean to include a link to your skit in your musical revue on aging? I’d love to hear it.

    2. Jan Brandom
      Jan Brandom at | | Reply

      I would LOVE to have a copy of your skit Gaea and wish I could see your musical revue on aging. What a wonderful way to inform people about communicating with elders.

  10. rosemary weston
    rosemary weston at | | Reply

    another common thing that people do is that they don’t even talk to the elder if there is a younger person with them…they talk about them as if they weren’t there!

    1. Marcia Barhydt
      Marcia Barhydt at | | Reply

      Oh Rosemary! I’d forgotten about that one! Talking about someone as if they’re not there – that’s one of the most offensive,demoralizing habits ever! How rude and thoughtless and just plain ignorant and mean.

    2. Karen D. Austin
      Karen D. Austin at | | Reply

      Rosemary: That’s a good, related problem to invoke. I’ve seen that happen. I try to talk directly to the older adult, then if they want their adult child, spouse or CNA to help them answer, then they can look to that person, but I try to look at and talk directly to older adults.

  11. Kevin McElroy
    Kevin McElroy at | | Reply

    Karen, what a great article! I actually talked about this during a staff meeting last week with our team. Are you by any chance able to e-mail me a copy so I can share it with our team? I tried to print it off but could not. If so, my e-mail is Thanks!

  12. Joe Wasylyk (@Seniorpreneur)
    Joe Wasylyk (@Seniorpreneur) at | | Reply

    I think that it;s going to be the responsibility of each senior to speak up when confronted with individuals that use Elder Speak (Baby Talk) in their conversations you you. Can you remember any situations in childhood when you heard baby talk expressions to children when they are no longer children. Being senior friendly is critical to having more individuals respect seniors more. Seniors have enough maturity, wisdom, life experiences and resources to challenge anybody that wants to downgrade a senior for any particular reason.

    1. Karen D. Austin
      Karen D. Austin at | | Reply

      Joe: I agree! I was corrected by a woman in her 90s in a quiet but firm way. Lesson learned! I think too often people self-segregate into their own generations when there is a richness to be found in intergenerational friendships. But it takes patience, empathy, trust and forgiveness on the part of all to make it work. Keep up the great work with encore careers. I recognize your handle from Twitter. *waving*

  13. Barb
    Barb at | | Reply

    This is very important to keep in mind. I remember my great-grandma saying that someone really knew how to talk to older people. I wonder if she was referencing “Elder Speak.” I hope that I always treat someone with the dignity and never make an adult feel like a child.

    1. thegenaboveme
      thegenaboveme at | | Reply

      Barb: I’m glad that you can still remember your great-grandmother’s attention to language issues. Too often people make older adults invisible and voiceless. It’s great to see you be an advocate for treating all with dignity.

  14. Chip Allen
    Chip Allen at | | Reply

    Great post! Seems like the classic golden rule… I wouldn’t ever want anyone speaking to me this way. Why do so many of us do it to others?

    1. Karen D. Austin
      Karen D. Austin at | | Reply

      Chip: For some reason, people think they are being helpful and supportive. They don’t realize that focusing on capabilities is more important than assigning someone a role of “hepless” and “needy” or “broken.” Hopefully, people can gain some insight and adopt new language.

  15. Madeleine Kolb
    Madeleine Kolb at | | Reply

    I’ve, definitely, encountered elderspeak, but the most condescending thing anyone’s ever said to me when when I was in a hospital at age 32. I’d had a Caesarian section, and someone must have forgotten to wash his hands because I got an infection. I was isolated in a room and had to call for a bedpan to urinate.

    Feeling a lot better after a few days, I got up and went to the women’s bathroom. A nurse found that I was not in my room and called out in an overly loud voice that I was “a bad, bad girl.”
    What is it about hospitals that brings out the over-bearing side of some care providers?

    1. Karen D. Austin
      Karen D. Austin at | | Reply

      Madeleine: That’s a wild story. Hopefully,the head nurse offers regular on-the-job training about preserving the dignity of patients. I know that it can be very taxing to work as a nurse (I had two roommates who worked as nurses), but even extreme stress shouldn’t erode respect towards patients.

    2. Anonymous
      Anonymous at | | Reply

      My father, age 84, resides in assisted living. He was called a “bad boy” teasingly by a CNA (certified nursing assistant) for refusing to participate in the daily bingo game. Dad hates bingo and he hasn’t been a “boy” since Franklin Roosevelt was President!

  16. Marcia Barhydt
    Marcia Barhydt at | | Reply

    This is SUCH a common problem Karen and so very offensive. Congratulations on a great article. You should wallpaper your observations over the entrance doors to every retirement home !

    About 5 years ago, I had a guy who held a door opened for me. I use a walker and this is fairly common. When I thanked him, he replied “No problem, DEARIE”. With that one patronizing word, he negated his generous act.

    1. thegenaboveme
      thegenaboveme at | | Reply

      Marcia: Ouch! It’s too bad that his politeness was undercut by his patronizing language. Maybe he will get some perspective soon. Let’s hope!

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