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Not Just Rude - Elderspeak does Damage

Not Just Rude - Elderspeak does Damage

         Many people were raised to say Thank You Ma'am or Sir to someone they perceived to be their elder, BUT  Ma'aming is something I hate! I hate language that separates; from something reasonably trivial like Ma'am and Sir to the actual divisive language used to truly harm. I have long thought that you can be respectful and polite and in no way use words that may offend. 

If a server is passing me my coffee - they can simply say " Here you go" no need to add Ma'am at the end of the phrase. They wouldn't if they were passing the coffee to my daughter. 

So far the worst for me was a flight attendant (who by the way was certainly not much younger than I am) calling me "Dear". What I wanted to say (but refrained was " How do you know I am Dear I might be secretly an ax murderer." 

Now it turns out that this "Elderspeak" which includes not only language choices but cadence and tone of voice as well, is not only disrespectful but damaging. 

 Cindy Dampier writing for the Chicago Tribune entitles her article: 

Talking to the elderly shouldn't include baby talk — it's not only condescending, it can cause cognitive harm

Ms. Dampier quotes by Anna Corwin, Assistant Professor in the anthropology department at Saint Mary’s College of California: 

"There are several specific characteristics that define elderspeak, It has a slow speech rate; exaggerated intonation; elevated pitch — raising your voice as if everything is a question; elevated volume; simplified vocabulary and reduced grammatical complexity; diminutives, like calling people ‘dear’ or ‘sweetie’; pronoun substitution like using the collective pronoun ‘we’; and lots of repetition. it can cause experiences of lower self-esteem, but it also correlates with reduced cognitive ability, so it’s a real problem.” Corwin’s research published last year on nuns (long noted for aging more successfully than secular peers) found that “the vast majority of sisters who were caregivers were not using it.” Absence of elderspeak isn’t unusual in some societies — researchers in India have noted that culture’s different approach to aging and thus a lack of elderspeak — yet it is quite surprising in American society, Corwin says."

This is learned behavior and as many of our societal bad habits, this is one to un-learn.  Writing for Next Avenue Julie Pfitzinger quotes: Becca Levy, a researcher on a study on the effects of elderspeak, by Yale University," the practice “sends a message that the patient is incompetent, and begins a negative downward spiral for older adults who react with decreased self-esteem, depression and withdrawal.”

  Here are a few things to be aware of and to avoid: According to Karen Austin writing for Changing Aging with Dr. Bill Thomas


  •  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?”

Ms. Austin continues explaining that:

  • 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.

Start with the assumption that anyone you are talking to is at the height of their powers until you learn otherwise. Most importantly know that people even one's suffering from cognitive decline can assess the tone of voice. No one wants or deserves to be talked down to. 

Always communicate with respect. 

and for an excellent postscript read this: From AARP #Disrupt Aging

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