Why baby-talking to your grandma is not OK
Widespread use of ‘elderspeak’ segregates older people as less than productive, dependent
Willie Nelson is 85. This is either scary, or awesome, depending on your point of view and your love of a latterday outlaw.
Nelson has spawned his share of legends, not least among them the notion that he’s toured so much that everyone from backstage hangers-on to pizza delivery boys has had the chance to meet him.
Suppose you got the chance: Imagine you walk into a diner, sit down on a stool at the counter, order your coffee, turn to your left and see Nelson occupying the next seat. What would you say?
Would you ask him about writing “On the Road Again” on the back of an airline barf bag? Would you tell him that “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” makes you cry every time?
Or something like this: “Oooh, Mr. Nelson, let’s be careful with our coffee now, sweetie. Is that hot? Is it HOTTT?”
Now imagine Willie punching you right in the face.
A lot of people are aging in America these days. This year, U.S. Census Bureau data showed that within the next two decades adults 65 years and older will outnumber children. Which means we all better learn how to talk to our elders.
For years, scientists who study the way we age in Western societies have noticed the proliferation of “elderspeak,” a widespread tendency to talk to the elderly in a way that mimics the sugary tones some people use on small children or pets. “It sounds like baby talk, like simplified speech,” says Anna I. Corwin, an anthropologist and professor at St. Mary’s College of California whose work has focused on the study of aging in Catholic nuns.
There are several specific characteristics that define elderspeak, according to Corwin: “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’s easy to picture people talking to elderly grandparents in this way or to recall well-intentioned caregivers use elderspeak. And it’s easy to imagine why the elderly wouldn’t like it. But research shows the issue goes beyond preference. A 2008 study showed that dementia patients become more agitated and resistant to care when spoken to in this manner. And, Corwin points out, “it can cause experiences of lower self-esteem, but it also correlates with reduced cognitive ability, so it’s a real problem.”
Dementia patients, in particular, are often subject to elderspeak, and dementia cases are rising along with the aging population. According to Alzheimer’s Association data, more than 16 million Americans are currently providing care for a person with dementia. Last week, the largest ever National Institutes of Health budget increase for dementia research — $425 million — was signed into law, a move that recognizes it as a burgeoning public health crisis.
Reducing elderspeak is one of the most basic ways society can address dementia. In fact, 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.
“Americans tend to view and treat older adults as no longer productive in society. And that’s how we define personhood, as an adult who is a productive member of society.” Unfortunately, much of our dialogue around aging — the “successful aging” paradigm that celebrates only elderly people who are running marathons or “still working at 100!” — feeds this perception. Elderspeak and baby talk, Corwin says, are speech patterns that indicate our perception that a person is less than productive, is somehow dependent. And this kind of speech “segregates children and older adults and also people with disabilities from regular society.”
Such speech patterns also come into play with people we believe are impaired in their communication, either through hearing loss or a lack of ability to speak or form words. “If people are not actually able to produce words, it becomes difficult to hold conversations,” says Corwin, “because they can’t respond to you in typical ways.”
Corwin’s research showed, however, that nuns did not revert to elderspeak, even with patients who could no longer communicate effectively.
How we talk to elders is important for their well-being and our own.