Elderspeak is a modified speech pattern that can be demoralizing to older adults

Elderspeak: What It Is and Why It Can Be Harmful

“Elderspeak” is a unique pattern of speech – similar to baby talk – that younger individuals often adopt when speaking to the elderly. The tone of elderspeak can seem condescending, express unwanted pity, and potentially foster resentment among older adults.

The characteristics of elderspeak include:

  • Slow and careful speech
  • Simplified grammar
  • Assumption of helplessness
  • Exaggerated affectionate words (“sweetie,” “honey,” “dear,” “buddy”)
  • The use of “we” or “us” instead of “you”

Many older adults tolerate this treatment daily, even when they’re perfectly capable of understanding normal speech patterns. This degrading interaction can be harmful to their mental and physical well-being.

Roots of Elderspeak

When we speak to each other, we instinctively modify our speech to better convey our words. In situations where communication could be difficult, we automatically use simple forms of speech so someone with perceived limited ability can comprehend.

While younger people may not deliberately patronize older adults, they may use elderspeak subconsciously based on their belief of the elderly’s ability (or lack thereof) to understand and respond.

Effects of Elderspeak

Sing-song tones, exaggerated pronunciation, and baby talk are confusing tactics that distort messages conveyed to seniors. These techniques actually decrease comprehension.

Understandably, older people in full possession of their faculties are unhappy when addressed as children. Elderspeak’s negative effects can include:

  • Depression
  • Resentment
  • Low self-esteem
  • Embarrassment
  • Loneliness

Elderspeak may lead older adults to harbor increased anger and refuse to cooperate with assisted care. A baby talk speech pattern can be an attack on their dignity and self-worth. 

Sensitive and Thoughtful Speaking

Here are some suggestions when speaking with older adults who have communication limitations or challenges:

  • Always speak respectfully
  • Use simple sentences to express complex ideas in bite-size parts
  • Repeat key points you wish to communicate, paraphrasing and changing the structure
  • Simplify your speech in favor of explicitness - communicate concrete information directly
  • Speak normally but distinctly (for those hard of hearing, speak louder but don’t change the tone or pitch of your voice)
  • Speak in a way that respects the dignity of the senior you are addressing
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