Be Careful What You Say! Studies Show Elderspeak Can Be Detrimental to Elderly with Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Words - and how you say them - can make a big difference in how an elderly loved one with Alzheimer's responds. As I mentioned in a 2006 blog, I learned that my strong-willed mother's reaction was often directly tied to the approach of the person making the request (or demand).


    Thus, I'm not surprised by a New York Times article entitled "In ‘Sweetie' and ‘Dear,' A Hurt for the Elderly" that describes the impact of elderspeak. This type of speaking by reporter John Leland as "the sweetly belittling form of address that has always rankled older people: the doctor who talks to their child rather than to them about their health; the store clerk who assumes that an older person does not know how to work a computer, or needs to be addressed slowly or in a loud voice. Then there are those who address any elderly person as ‘dear.'"

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    In the article, Yale University Associate Professor Becca Levy noted that studies are finding that elderspeak can impact the elderly person's health. Dr. Levy has a new study that has found that the elderly subjects who were exposed to negative images of aging performed significantly worse on memory and balance tests.


    In another study which involved subjects with mild to moderate dementia, University of Kansas associate professor Kristine Williams found that the worst offenders are often health care workers. The New York Times article reported that researchers "found that when nurses used phrases like ‘good girl' or ‘How are we feeling?' patients were more aggressive and less cooperative or receptive to care. If addressed as infants, some showed their irritation by grimacing, screaming or refusing to do what staff members asked of them. The researchers, who will publish their findings in The American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias, concluded that elderspeak sent a message that the patient was incompetent and ‘begins a negative downward spiral for older persons, who react with decreased self-esteem, depression, withdrawal and the assumption of dependent behaviors.'"


    These studies should make us think about our approach in talking with an elderly loved one who is suffering from dementia. Our choice of words and how we say them can have a positive or negative impact on the loved one's reactions as well as the mental condition. So be sure to choose wisely!

Published On: October 08, 2008