[Editor’s Note: Originally posted at The Generation Above Me]
About a year after I started volunteering at a skilled nursing home, I observed a set of new teenaged volunteers who came to help with a craft at the monthly meeting of the Red Hat Society. I heard several of the volunteers speak slowly and loudly, using a sing-song voice. In response, I saw many of the residents roll their eyes.
Unfortunately, I had flashbacks to when I also first started as a volunteer. I altered my speech inappropriately as well, hoping to be supportive but coming off as patronizing instead.
- Speaking slowly
- Speaking loudly
- Using a sing-song voice
- Inflecting statements to sound like a question
- Using the pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our” in place of “you.”: “How are we doing today?”
- Using pet names such as “sweetheart,” “dearie,” or “honey”
- Shortening sentences
- Simplifying syntax (sentence structure)
- Simplifying vocabulary
- Repeating statements or questions
- Answering questions for the older adult: “You would like your lunch now, wouldn’t you?”
- In other ways talking for the older adult: “You are having a good time on the patio today, I see. And you have your pink sweater on, which you love. Right?”
- Asking people questions that assume role loss, idleness and powerlessness such as “Who did you used to be?” “What did you used to do?”
Even though this list describes various ways in which people sometimes alter their speech when talking to older adults, a couple of misperceptions generate the communication problem:
- Elderspeak assumes that the older adult is dependent, frail, weak, incompetent, childlike, etc.
- Elderspeak assumes that the speaker has greater control, power, value, wisdom, knowledge, etc than the older adult listening.
- Elderspeak assumes that all older adults equally suffer from memory problems, hearing problems, energy problems, etc.
Public health experts have found that when older adults are exposed to the patronizing language of elderspeak, their performance on tasks decreases and their rates of depression increase. Other studies show that even people with moderate to severe dementia can tell when people are talking down to them, and it decreases their level of co-operation.