Why baby-talk­ing to your grandma is not OK

Wide­spread use of ‘el­der­s­peak’ seg­re­gates older peo­ple as less than pro­duc­tive, de­pen­dent

Albuquerque Journal - - SENIOR LIVING - BY CINDY DAMPIER

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.

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