Senior woman holding her grandchild
The Kalamazoo and surrounding area home care experts provide tips on how to avoid elderspeak with seniors.

Watch what occurs at your next family gathering when a new mother places her baby in someone’s arms. The individual will likely transition immediately into baby mode: a high-pitched, sing-song voice, overly-simplified speech, and exaggerated facial expressions. Of course, this is perfectly normal and actually advantageous to a baby’s growing brain. 

Hopefully, though, when that infant’s grandfather enters the room, family members don’t respond similarly. However, it happens so often, and can be so damaging to seniors, that there’s a word to describe it: elderspeak. 

A recent study by Susan Kemper, a professor specializing in gerontology at the University of Kansas, paired senior listeners with younger speakers. Even with the seniors’ instructions to simply listen without interrupting while the younger people spoke to them – which gave the speakers no hint that they were having any challenges understanding what was being said – a vast majority of the speakers struggled to avoid elderspeak with the seniors.

It’s interesting to note as well that older adults regularly avoid elderspeak with other seniors. Research has shown that for a great many older adults, elderspeak conveys superiority and a cold attitude.

Why It’s Harmful

Simply put, elderspeak can be considered belittling and patronizing. It communicates a sense of inferiority and incompetency to seniors, instead of the admiration and respect they deserve. While typically well-meaning and intended to communicate endearment, it commonly has the opposite effect. 

What to Do Instead

  • Thoughtfully consider how to address the senior loved ones in your life. Many seniors find terms like “young lady,” “honey,” or “dearie” to be offensive. 
  • Use caution when modifying how you speak to an older adult according to individual need. For example, speaking clearly and slowly while facing a senior with hearing loss is beneficial. A high-pitched voice, however, can in fact further distort the words. A senior loved one with memory issues can better follow the conversation if it is broken down into short, simple sentences and yes-or-no questions. This can very easily be accomplished without utilizing baby talk.
  • Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as each person has unique preferences and challenges. An honest and open conversation with the person about how they would like to be addressed and spoken to is the best way to ensure you are engaging with them appropriately.

Home Sweet Home In-Home Care places a great emphasis on respectful interactions with every aging adult within our care. Contact us online or call us at (269) 373-5444 in Kalamazoo, (269) 763-5350 in Paw Paw, (269) 849-9252 in St. Joseph, or (269) 963-9888 in Battle Creek for an in-home consultation to learn more about how we can help promote independence for seniors with customized Kalamazoo home care support for Michigan communities. For the full list of the communities we serve, visit our Locations page.

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