Elderspeak: Annoying and Toxic

Elderspeak was first coined in the 1980s by social scientists to describe what sounded like baby talk directed at older adults.

It is defined as a communication style based on stereotypes that older adults are less competent, so younger communication partners simplify their communication, attempt to clarify communication, and alter the emotional tone of messages when communicating with older adults.

Elderspeak’s style of speech includes:
• Inappropriately intimate terms of endearment
• A slow rate of speech
• Exaggerated intonation
• Elevated pitch and volume
• Greater repetitions
• Simpler vocabulary and grammar

Here are some examples of its features:

Inappropriate terms of endearment that imply parent-child relationship:
“Hey hon, where are you’re going? That’s not your room you silly girl.”

Inappropriate use of plural pronouns:
“Are we ready for our medicine?”

Tag questions that prompts the answer to the question and implies the older adult can’t act alone:
“You would rather wear the blue socks, wouldn’t you?”

Shortened sentences, slow speech rate and simple vocabulary that sound like baby talk:
“Hello, Mary dear. Maureen is here to see you. And how are we doing today, sweetie?”

Why is elderspeak used?

It stems from negative stereotypes about older adults that see them as less competent and in need of a more simplistic and exaggerated communication style.

Modeling by others including family members, healthcare providers and popular media that perpetuate its use.

It arises from a lack of awareness of the negative impact this style of communication has on older adults.

It also represents insensitivity to the need that everyone should be treated as competent, worthy of respect and independent.

Lastly, it usurps the older adults control of his or her world.

So, how do older adults respond to elderspeak? Not well. They find it:
• Annoying
• Disrespectful
• Demeaning
• Patronizing

And how does it impact their health? Not only does elderspeak fail to improve communication with older adults, it also:
1. Reinforces dependency
2. Engenders isolation and depression
3. And contributes to a downward spiral of decline in physical, cognitive, and functional status

So what’s an alternate approach to elderspeak?

Here are some alternative strategies:

1. Speak in a normal tone: Good morning Mrs. Jones.
2. Speak at a normal pace: How are you feeling today?
3. Use normal words: Are you ready to take a walk with me?
4. Refer to older adults by their full name: Mrs. Larson, it’s time for your medications.
5. Use singular pronouns: Here is your lunch.
6. Ask untagged questions: Do you want to wear the red outfit of the blue outfit today?