Posted on August 9, 2012
By: Reuben Chow
It is quite common that many of us speak to older folks in a different manner and with a different tone. “Elderspeak” bears many traits which are similar to “baby talk”, and these include simplified grammar and vocabulary, as well as overly intimate terms of endearment. And recent research has shown that such a communication style may not only be exasperating and insulting to many of the elderly, it can even negatively affect their health.
What is elderspeak? Broadly speaking, it is a style which is assumed to accommodate the perceived communication needs of elderly people. It involves speaking slowly, restrictions on vocabulary, simplified syntax, as well as exaggerated prosody.
The fundamental assumption behind elderspeak is that the elderly are cognitively impaired, and thus need some “help”. It can be said to be patronizing and disrespectful to the older adult.
Researchers have also defined elderspeak as overly caring, controlling and infantilizing communication.
Findings from Studies
In a study led by Becca Levy, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, it was found that elderly folks who were exposed to negative stereotypes commonly associated with ageing, enforced by condescending phrases and attitudes, performed significantly worse when tested for memory and balance.
In one particular town in Ohio, her study team found that those who were above 50 and held positive perceptions about ageing went on to live 7.5 years longer than their peers who did not. This was after other health-affecting factors were already accounted for.
Those attitudes were affected even by apparently harmless words and phrases and, profoundly, they supposedly had a greater impact than important factors such as smoking and exercise.
Elsewhere, Kristine Williams, R.N., Ph.D., an associate professor at Kansas University, studied the effect of elderspeak on Alzheimer’s patients with dementia. The interaction between staff and 20 residents of a nursing home, aged between 69 and 97 years and having moderate levels of dementia, were videotaped.
The study found that the patients were more likely to resist care after they were spoken to using elderspeak, instead of the usual adult-to-adult form of communication. When resisting care, they would carry out actions such as saying no or crying out, turning away, grabbing onto someone or something, pulling their limbs tightly toward the body, or hitting and kicking.
“There’s the suggestion that these people are unable to communicate that their needs aren’t being met. And because they can’t communicate verbally, they may respond in these other nonverbal ways,” Dr Williams said. And, according to her, the need in question could just be the wish to be treated as an adult who is worthy of respect.
And, perhaps somewhat ironically, the biggest culprits of elderspeak are often healthcare workers, including doctors and nursing staff.
The Problem with Elderspeak
The problem with elderspeak, is that it hurts the self-esteem of those to whom it is used on. Worse, it can literally grind them down and send them on a self-fueling downward spiral toward ill health and even premature death. That, after all, is what we get when we communicate to people that they are weak, a liability, incompetent or even useless – they often prove us right!
“Elderspeak is indicative of general negative stereotypes of the elderly. It is another example of how people are treated differently based on their age in healthcare, in the workforce and in everyday life. And we have found a clear connection between how the elderly are treated and their health and functioning,” said Dr Levy.
“Daily we are witness to, or even unwitting participants in, cruel imagery, jokes, languages and attitudes directed at older people,” said Dr Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Centre-USA, who first coined the term “ageism” some 40 years ago.
With populations ageing in the US and in many developed nations, the need to avoid elderspeak becomes all the more significant. In the US, the 85-and-above age group is the fastest-growing one.
Ms Elaine Smith, a 78 year old retired Chicago schoolteacher, who was subject to elderspeak when she was hospitalized for two months after suffering a fall, said that people can become quite indignant when she tells them she is offended by such a communication style. And she has an interesting viewpoint regarding elderspeak.
“But I believe that the people who heap these endearments upon us are reacting to their own fears of ageing in a youth-oriented culture,” she said. Her advice? Get over it.
So, the next time we want to use terms such as “dear”, “good girl” and “sweetie” on the elderly, or speak very slowly and in overly simplified language to them, we better think again.
Talking down to the elderly is bad for their health, medical study finds (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/article3256340.ece)
Posted by Gabriela Brown
Constant Companions Home Care