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The Negative Effects of Elderspeak

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A father and his daughter sitting on a couch smiling and talking to each other while holding a cup of coffee.

Anyone who interacts with older adults regularly knows how important communication is. Whether a loved one is in a senior community or at home, caregivers and family members play a significant role in their lives. 

Optimal living and successful aging depend on core values such as compassion, integrity, and respect. However, without realizing it, caregivers can change how they speak to older adults, commonly known as elderspeak. 

While elderspeak may be well-intentioned, it can negatively affect a loved one’s self-esteem, cognition, and overall well-being. 

What Is Elderspeak?

Elderspeak is a form of communication when speaking to older adults in a manner that’s similar to baby talk. It involves adjustments to speech patterns, often using simplified language, speaking at a slower pace or more loudly, with limited vocabulary, shorter sentences, and inappropriate terms of endearment. 

Elderspeak implies that older adults are cognitively impaired or unable to understand normal speech. It can be common in health care settings by doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, occupational therapists, and social workers. 

The Negative Effects of Elderspeak

Elderspeak can significantly impact the behaviour of those with dementia by enhancing communication. However, while it’s intended to show respect or kindness, simplified grammar or baby talk can negatively affect a loved one’s mental health and well-being. 

Some of the negative effects of elderspeak on seniors can include the following:

  • Decreased self-esteem: Elderspeak can reinforce negative stereotypes about aging and erode their self-esteem and confidence.
  • Negative self-perception: Patronizing communication can lead to negative self-perception in older adults. 
  • Social isolation: Elderspeak can lead to avoiding social interactions or withdrawing from social situations.
  • Cognitive decline: Elderspeak seems to be associated with cognitive decline and worsened communication in older adults. Exposure to rich linguistic interaction is important to help maintain cognitive and emotional well-being in older adults. 
  • Decreased comprehension: Exaggerated words, statements that sound like questions, and talking too slowly can be confusing and affect a loved one’s ability to focus and retain information.
  • Resistance to care: Elderspeak can increase the probability of resistance to care related to the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. 
  • Increased dependence: Elderspeak is associated with communication problems, a lower rate of communicative competence, and can make a loved one feel dependent and controlled. 
  • Negative impact on relationships: Elderspeak can strain relationships between older adults and their caregivers. It also threatens building trusting relationships because of bias and stereotypes. 
A senior man and his adult son sitting on a couch and talking seriously.

How to Communicate with Older Adults

Elderspeak can negatively affect the mental health and well-being of older adults. Although challenging, it’s vital to communicate with them respectfully. 

Here are some tips on how to effectively communicate with older adults to build satisfying relationships and manage their care to improve health and wellness outcomes:

  • Speak to a loved one as an adult—despite them having a physical, sensory, or cognitive impairment. 
  • Avoid inappropriate terms of endearment, such as “sweetie” or “honey,” or pet names that may seem disrespectful. You can establish respect by using formal terms of address, such as Mr. or Ms., or ask how they prefer to be addressed.
  • Avoid rushing older adults by being mindful of their pace. Some older adults may have trouble following many questions at one go or lots of information at once. 
  • Try speaking at a pace and tone that gives them time to process what is being said or asked. 
  • Speak plainly and ask if clarification is needed. 
  • Address older adults face-to-face, so you can watch their body language to know whether they understand what you’re saying. 
  • After communicating, older adults can also benefit from written notes or printed handouts as they might not remember everything and refer to it later if needed. 
  • Communication adapted to different backgrounds, cultural differences, and health conditions, such as dementia, can affect and influence how older adults respond to caregivers, receive care, and build relationships. 

Sometimes despite your best efforts at communication, because of cognitive problems, older adults can still seem confused. In these instances, you can look for a program catered to older adults with dementia with specially trained community staff. 

Optimal Living for Older Adults

Elderspeak can negatively affect the mental health and well-being of older adults. By avoiding elderspeak and speaking to older adults as any other person, you can help them feel respected, valued, understood, and empowered.

If you have a loved one and have questions about our community, schedule a tour with Bentley Commons at Bedford to learn how we can support your loved one in their golden years. 

Written by bentley

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