Baby Talk and “Elderspeak” Disturbingly Related


    "Here you go, Hon. Anything else?" Though cringing inwardly, I smile outwardly and say, "No thanks."  The waitress, perhaps in her early thirties, is just trying to be nice to me. I understand that. I happen to be a small person, rather short, tiny bones - the kind of person where, when the prairie winds invade our metro area and tall buildings create wind tunnels, I could use a few rocks in my pockets to hold me down. However, that, plus the fact that I'm old enough to be this woman's mother, doesn't give her a right to talk down to me.


    She, of course, doesn't realize she is talking down to me. She's just being nice and thinks I'm "sweet." But would she call a twenty-something woman "Hon?" I doubt it.

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    Where am I going with this, you ask? I'm referring to an ABC online news article titled, "'Baby Talk' Irritates Alzheimer's Patients: Caregivers For the Elderly Should Avoid Certain Patterns of Speech, New Research Says." This article is must reading for all caregivers. I wouldn't mind putting it in high school curriculum, as well, but that likely won't happen.


    My mom was tiny and frail during her years in a very good home, where the people loved her. They would tenderly call her "Hon," and they meant well. I really don't think my mother minded that, during this frail point in her life. She knew these people well, and she may even have found it comforting. These were wonderful caregivers. They treated her gently. Perhaps I'm just testier, as I am younger and not frail.


    However, Alzheimer's patients and others, with or without dementia, who are being cared for, are adults. They are not children. This ABC article tells of a study done by
    Kristine Williams, associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Nursing. Williams is quoted in the article saying, "Elderspeak is a kind of talk or communication that is common between younger adults and older adults in a variety of settings ... adding that it's not too far from "baby talk.'"


    In her latest study, Williams found that, "When staff members spoke in elderspeak, the residents' resistance to care nearly doubled compared with when staff spoke normally."


    This all works into my soapbox stance about the fact that we can't "parent our parents." No matter how far into the dementia or aging process and elder goes, their dignity should be of utmost importance. And using diminishing terms is inappropriate.


    These terms are rarely meant by the speaker in any way but as endearments. Even people who say they are parenting their parents are only describing that what they do is akin to what their parents did for them, as babies. But how we speak often subconsciously directs how we act. So this attitude can lead the downward spiral toward treating elders like babies.


    The patterns of speech we use for two-year-olds (if we should even do it then, is controversial), is not the same pattern of speech we should use with people with Alzheimer's. Even if the person with Alzheimer's can no longer find the proper word to say to the caregiver, it doesn't mean he doesn't react to the words spoken to him, and the manner in which the words are said. Williams' study is important. Treat an adult like an adult and you may get a better response and less resistance.


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    One more related thing, since I've also written on this site about body language. Body language is also important.  People with dementia can pick up on your body language long after they can no longer communicate verbally. That goes along with "elderspeak." Treat every person with the respect an adult deserves, both in words and actions, and there will likely be fewer instances of "acting out" by the person who is receiving care.


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Published On: August 02, 2008