We have all heard of an older person being called ‘sweetie’ or ‘dear’, or being rewarded with the words ‘good boy’. While this type of language is usually delivered with the best of intentions, speaking to older people as though they are children also is a sign of ageist attitudes and creates the sense that the older person is incompetant.
The issue of talking to aged care residents as though they are children came up on HelloCare’s Aged Care Worker Support Group recently, and we decided to explore the topic.
Members of the group recognised that ‘elderspeak’, as the practice is called, is disrespectful and patronising, and not in keeping with the first Aged Care Quality and Safety Standard: ‘I am treated with dignity and respect’.
Researchers have shown that elderspeak can even lead to declines in both mental and physical health.
In a study, researchers videoed conversations between 20 residents and staff in aged care homes.
The researchers found that when the carers used elderspeak, patients became more aggressive, less cooperative and less receptive to care.
When staff spoke to them as though they were children, the older people grimaced, screamed and refused to cooperate with staff.
Dr Kristine Williams, one of the report’s authors, told The New York Times that care staff who use elderspeak don’t realise the implications of the language they’re using. They don’t realise they’re giving older people the message that they’re incompetent.
A fellow researcher, Becca Levy, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology, Yale University, said using ‘elderspeak’ contributes to poor perceptions of ageing.
“Those little insults can lead to more negative images of ageing,” she told The New York Times.
“Those who have more negative images of ageing have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival.”
Levy’s research has shown that those who have a positive attitude towards ageing live 7.5 years longer than those with a less positive image of ageing, a larger increase than that associated with exercising more or not smoking.
As mentioned, elderspeak is the practice of speaking to older people as though they were children.
The examples used by the researchers included ‘good girl’ and ‘honey’.
They also tested the collective ‘we’, such as in the question ‘how are we feeling?’, which is both grammatically incorrect and implies the older person can not make a decision themselves.
Features of elderspeak include simple vocabulary, short sentences, slow, loud speech and inappropriately intimate terms of endearment.
Colin McDonnell, dementia consultant at Calvary Care, told HelloCare that speaking to older people as though they are children is humiliating and frustrating for them.
To begin with, McDonnell says older people should be called by their name and if they have a title, for example professor, then they should continue to be called by that title.
When you speak to older people, use a “normal” tone and “normal” language, McDonnell said.
“The way we communicate with older people is very important to maintaining their dignity and quality of life,” McDonnell said.
Understanding the impacts of elderspeak is particularly important for people living with dementia.
People living with dementia cling to their sense of self or personhood, Williams told The New York Times.
“If you know you’re losing your cognitive abilities and trying to maintain your personhood, and someone talks to you like a baby, it’s upsetting.”