“Elderspeak” Bad For Health of Elderly Folks

Mar 10, 2009 by

“Elderspeak” Bad For Health of Elderly Folks

Do you have the habit of speaking to older folks, especially those who may be ill, in a simplistic and child-like manner, in much the same way you speak to a baby or little children?

If you do, you may want to reconsider having such a habit, as doing so may have a negative impact on the health of elderly folks, as revealed in research.

“Elderspeak” Can Negatively Affect Health of Older People

by Reuben Chow

It is quite common that many of us speak to older folks in a different manner and with a different tone. “Elderspeak” bears many traits which are similar to “baby talk”, and these include simplified grammar and vocabulary, as well as overly intimate terms of endearment. And recent research has shown that such a communication style may not only be exasperating and insulting to many of the elderly, it can even negatively affect their health.

About Elderspeak

What is elderspeak? Broadly speaking, it is a style which is assumed to accommodate the perceived communication needs of elderly people. It involves speaking slowly, restrictions on vocabulary, simplified syntax, as well as exaggerated prosody.

The fundamental assumption behind elderspeak is that the elderly are cognitively impaired, and thus need some “help”. It can be said to be patronizing and disrespectful to the older adult.

Researchers have also defined elderspeak as overly caring, controlling and infantilizing communication.

Findings from Studies

In a study led by Becca Levy, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, it was found that elderly folks who were exposed to negative stereotypes commonly associated with ageing, enforced by condescending phrases and attitudes, performed significantly worse when tested for memory and balance.

In one particular town in Ohio, her study team found that those who were above 50 and held positive perceptions about ageing went on to live 7.5 years longer than their peers who did not. This was after other health-affecting factors were already accounted for.

Those attitudes were affected even by apparently harmless words and phrases and, profoundly, they supposedly had a greater impact than important factors such as smoking and exercise.

Elsewhere, Kristine Williams, R.N., Ph.D., an associate professor at Kansas University, studied the effect of elderspeak on Alzheimer’s patients with dementia. The interaction between staff and 20 residents of a nursing home, aged between 69 and 97 years and having moderate levels of dementia, were videotaped.

The study found that the patients were more likely to resist care after they were spoken to using elderspeak, instead of the usual adult-to-adult form of communication. When resisting care, they would carry out actions such as saying no or crying out, turning away, grabbing onto someone or something, pulling their limbs tightly toward the body, or hitting and kicking.

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