Avoiding Elderspeak

Posted on Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A simple choice of words can have a dramatic effect

What is “elderspeak?”

It is a slow, simplistic and often exaggerated manner of speaking that younger individuals sometimes use when addressing older adults. It employs language that includes terms of endearment -- like “sweetie” and “honey,” for example -- and in most cases is well-intentioned, but it can also be both unhelpful and hurtful, feeding negative stereotypes of aging.

Words matter, and understanding how people might perceive your words is critical.

For some seniors, the use of elderspeak can feel like they are being coddled or condescended to, leading to feelings of resentment and further breakdowns in communication. Reactions from the elderly can vary from loud outbursts to quiet or even silent offense.

The source of the problem with elderspeak is that it focuses on a person’s age and perceived frailties, as opposed to their actual cognitive abilities. It can imply that they are incompetent, negatively affecting their outlook and in turn impacting their quality of life.

To avoid this, try to focus on communicating to the person’s strengths, rather than attempting to work around their weaknesses, real or perceived. Always err on the side of formality and don’t hesitate to be upfront in asking a senior how or in what way they’d like to be addressed.

It’s natural for people to change how they act and speak to accommodate whoever they are talking to, and in some cases the change is not even conscious. But when dealing with seniors, it is important to be more thoughtful and empathetic about your word choices.

If it helps, consider how you would want to be spoken to if the dynamic was reversed.

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