Faye Kirtley doesn't appreciate it when store clerks talk down to her and act as if "I don't know what I'm doing," she says. The 88-year-old also adds that "It's embarrassing and I don't know why they think it's okay to treat an older person like that. Maybe they have people in their family that they talk down to, too."
Barbara Tack, who is 76 years old cringes when people call her by diminutives like 'miss' and 'little lady'. But she never lets people who use such terminology bring her down. On one occasion, she had corrected a supermarket cashier: “I told him, ‘I am not young, and I think it’s an insult to call attention to my age at all,’” said Tack. “He did seem chagrined, so I tempered it with something like, ‘It makes me feel bad that all you can see is my age.’ But I hear that kind of condescending comment way too often.”
She also shared a story about a friend, a 70-year-old man who was offended by what he perceived to be childlike instructions given to him by a nurse in a doctor's office: “Sorry, you have to remove your sweater for me to take your blood pressure. I know it’s cold outside and you can put it back on right away.”
But what the two older adults above are referring to is known as elderspeak. It occurs when an older adult is spoken to by health care workers, service personnel, neighbors or even family members as if he or she is a child with limited understanding. Elderspeak sounds like baby talk or simplified speech and is, in fact, a symptom of how older adults are often perceived. But, how does this come about? People, Americans included, tend to view and treat older adults as no longer productive in society.
Elderspeak generally involves talking slowly and loudly, with pronounced enunciation. It also employs the frequent use of words like 'sweetie', 'dear' and even the pronoun 'we' - as in: 'Do we want to go to dinner now?'
However, elderspeak does have a negative impact on older adults. Not only is this type of speech condescending and disrespectful, it can be damaging to their mental health and well-being. A researcher on a study on the effects of elderspeak by Yale University, Becca Levy, found that the practice “sends a message that the patient is incompetent, and begins a negative downward spiral for older adults who react with decreased self-esteem, depression and withdrawal.”
Furthermore, those living with mild to moderate dementia can be even more negatively impacted by this type of language. In fact, these people may even become aggressive or uncooperative when elderspeak is used.
Respect is undoubtedly important. In an article about the dangers of ageism by LifeCare Advocates, a care management practice based in Newton, Mass., one of the tactics mentioned for reducing the use of elderspeak includes training health care workers, to refrain from using diminutives, and asking older adults how they want to be addressed. For some, for instance, the use of their first name demonstrates a lack of respect. At the end of the day, the way you speak to an older adult simply comes down to an issue of dignity.