9/29/2022 | By Terri L. Jones

Seniors Guide writer Terri Jones addresses the pesky hidden problem of elderspeak, a pernicious aspect of ageism. Though the communication style may be intended as friendly, it can be harmful to the senior on the receiving end.

When a cashier at the grocery store or a nurse at the doctor’s office calls me “sweetie” or “honey,” I’ve always assumed they’re just one of those people who peppers their speech with sugary terms of endearment. Of course, it’s felt a little strange, considering I’m in my 60s, but I’ve let it slide.

However, I now know that I’ve been the victim of “elderspeak”!

How do you know if you’ve been a victim too?

Elderspeak, like baby talk, is when someone talks differently to you – even down to you – because of your age. Stereotyping older folks as hard of hearing or cognitively impaired, people often change their pitch, tone, and volume and speak more slowly to you. They may also limit their vocabulary, use statements that sound like questions, and repeat and paraphrase what’s been said.

Related: Ask Amy – Ageism and elderspeak at a dentist’s office

To top it all off, they may refer to you as “young lady” or “young man,” or address you, as they did me, with those intimate words like “honey” or “dear,” even though they don’t know you well.

So, it’s annoying, but what’s the harm?

nurse with male patient in a wheelchair. Photo by Wavebreakmedia Ltd, Dreamstime. Elderspeak is a pernicious aspect of ageism. It may be intended as friendly but can be harmful to the senior on the receiving end.

Elderspeak is prevalent in long-term care facilities and healthcare settings but can be found just about everywhere you go. The medical professionals, retail clerks, and even family members who use elderspeak are typically well-meaning and believe this type of speech is a kind, understanding, and protective way of talking to their elders. However, the seniors on the other end of the conversation generally don’t see it that way. Worse, it can be harmful to them in the long run.

Researchers have reported that many older adults perceive elderspeak as superior and cold. Think about how young children use baby talk to bully one another. Similarly, this patronizing communication can also emotionally damage a senior who’s on the receiving end.

In addition, repeating words or sentences, phrasing statements as questions, or talking too slowly, while meant to simplify a conversation, can actually confuse the listener and impede comprehension. Studies have also shown that using elderspeak with those with dementia can increase agitation and frustration and trigger screaming, yelling, and crying in patients. This style of speech can even make seniors question their own competence and ultimately, may damage their self-esteem.

How can a person avoid elderspeak?

If you are the speaker, always assume that the person you are addressing has good hearing and cognition and address them as you would anyone else – in an intelligent, respectful manner. If you find that the person has difficulty hearing you or following the conversation, you should adjust your communication accordingly, speaking louder or slower, simplifying your sentences if necessary. Just do not resort to using harmful baby talk or demeaning phrasing.

If you are the victim of elderspeak, you could make a joke of it and say that you haven’t been a “young lady” in a very long time, or your husband wouldn’t appreciate another man calling you “sweetie” (and hope they get the point!). You could also be more direct and politely tell the person that it’s not necessary to talk so loudly, slow down, or repeat what they’re saying (you heard them just fine!). You may even kindly point out that ageism is very real, often overlooked, and always harmful. If it’s a medical office or a business, make a complaint to management. People need to know the problem so they can change it.

Related: The Aging Adventurer addresses ageism and elderspeak

Bottom line, this style of conversation isn’t harmless drivel. It reinforces negative stereotypes about aging and fosters a lopsided relationship between the younger generations and their elders. And when treated like an inferior for long enough, some seniors may begin to believe it.

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones