The issue with elderspeak

Photo by Photo by Huy Phan - Accessed on Unsplash


Elderspeak is a style of speech that occurs when people talk down to older adults. It occurs in many forms and all of them are disrespectful, though the intention behind them is most often not.

As well as being patronizing, elderspeak is also degrading, depersonalizing and just down right irritating to the person on the receiving end.

Baby talk or talking as if speaking to a child is a common form of elderspeak. The person may use terms of endearment such as “sweetie, dear or love” when speaking to an older person, instead of using their name.

It can be difficult to address this type of situation without causing conflict. However, it is important to address it, especially if it is the start of a new relationship with a caregiver or someone you will have regular contact with. One simple way to do that is to say, “Please call me Jane”, or “I like to be called Mr. Jones”.

An Alberta Health Care worker said that the first question she asks older adults that she meets with is, “How would you like to be addressed?” She explained that it should be a common place question for people of any age, as it also answers the question of whether William is Bill, Billy, Will or William.

There are times when dealing with a customer service person in a bank, an automotive repair shop for example, where a staff member may gloss over the details of a transaction or suggest that you don’t need to know certain information.

One way to address this behaviour is to ask for clarification by requesting the details of what they are doing. Even if you are just ordering a coffee. If the customer service person is giving too many options or speaking at a fast pace, ask them to slow down and ask for explanations. There is nothing wrong with asking people to repeat themselves.

Sometimes people may invite a family member or friend, to come with them to medical appointments or to come with them when they are making big purchases, such as a motor vehicle. In these circumstances elderspeak can occur in a couple of different ways.

The salesperson may ignore the older adult and simply address all of their questions and information to the relative. It can also be the opposite, where the family member answers the questions directed at the older adult and interrupts them when they try to speak.

This type of behavior is very depersonalizing. In a health care setting, personnel are trained to deal with this kind of situation in a tactful manner. If they witness this conduct in an appointment, the care worker may stop the appointment and say that they would like to hear from both of the parties, but separately, so that they can get both perspectives.

An older adult can use this opportunity to clearly convey their wishes. Using “I” phrases is a very direct and simple way to communicate. A statement such as, “I understand the risks and I am still choosing to do this”, can clearly convey a person’s wishes to both the healthcare provider and their relative.

Family communication varies greatly depending on the family. Family members may assume a role with their relative that is very different than what is expected from them. If their behaviour oversteps it may not be intentional and they may mistakenly believe that they are actually helping.

It is important not to immediately judge, and to try to understand what is going on.

Lori loves her family and feels loved by them. However, one of the things that happens fairly often with her family is that she will ask a question and get the response “You have already asked me that”, or “I have already told you the answer”.

These dismissive responses make Lori feel incompetent, and consequently, she tries to write everything down in a book so that she can look back on it, which she finds stressful.

Telling her family directly how their responses make her feel, would bring to their attention that they are not being respectful, and give them the opportunity to recognize their behaviour and change it, while not damaging the relationship.

Feeling like people are not listening to you and that staff are speaking over you are also signs of elderspeak. If someone finds themselves in that situation, one technique to get back on an equal footing is to wait for a pause in the conversation and to tell the staff member directly how you feel.

It is easier for someone to connect with an emotional statement such as “I don’t feel heard”, than it is to a statement like, “You’re not listening to me”. This creates an even playing field, allowing the other party to respond without feeling attacked.

If you encounter elderspeak in a situation, address it with that person. If you still don’t feel you are being heard, especially in a care situation, raise the problem with managers or patient relations.

It is by hearing about people’s experiences and reminding people that they should speak to others as peers, no matter what age they are, that change happens.