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Barbara Garwood: A Caregiver’s Life

Elderspeak: I don’t think so, Sweetie!

We sometimes think of it as a Southern thing. Right, sweetie? (or sugar pie, honey, dear, doll baby.)

I used to think of it as Southern charm until I reached the ripe old age of 60. Then it became something else. It became offensive. It became insulting. It became (gasp!) elderspeak!

Once I experienced it first hand, I realized just how disrespectful elderspeak feels. For folks who are more senior and more debilitated, elderspeak may leave them feeling diminished, unimportant, and broken.

Let’s define the problem. Elderspeak refers to the unintentionally condescending way in which people often speak to older adults, especially when those adults are compromised in some way. Here are the trademarks of this form of speech:

• uninvited terms of endearment

• first person plural (“we don’t want to get cold”; “it’s time for our shower”)

• speaking unnecessarily loudly and slowly

• sing-song baby talk

• leading questions (“You don’t want that, do you?”)

Elderspeak goes beyond the stereotypical waitress at the corner diner who pops gum while taking your order and assures you, “I’ll have that ready in a jiffy, baby doll.” Elderspeak is demeaning, depressing, annoying, and downright harmful to seniors.

The nature of this pattern of speech places the speaker higher than the person being spoken to. It creates an adult-to-child relationship, especially in a caregiver setting. It lessens the importance of the person being spoken to and disrespects them. It takes away their personhood.

Having said that, “elderspeakers” are probably not aware of the hurt they are inflicting. They may think these terms of endearment impart a fondness for the person they are caring for or that baby talk is appropriate for a senior who has dementia or is physically compromised. Not true.

Let’s look at alternatives that create a more equal interaction. First and foremost, think about how you would want to be talked to in a situation where you required a caregiver.

I imagine you would want an adult-to-adult conversation and one that respects you as an individual.

For those of you who are caregivers, be mindful of your own speech. Also, be alert to how others are speaking to your loved one. If you overhear a caregiver telling your mom that “it’s time for our shower,” you may be tempted to ask the caregiver if she intends to take a shower as well.

A better approach would be to talk with the caregiver in private, let them know that you understand that they mean well, and then use this as a time to educate them on the impact of elderspeak. Here are some suggestions:

• Request that caregivers refrain from using first person pleural (unless they intend to hop in the shower with your mom).

• Let them know what name your loved one prefers to be called (e.g. – Mrs. Smith, Mary, or “everyone calls her Mimi”).

• If your loved one is hard of hearing, request that the caregiver look directly at your loved one when speaking to them whenever possible and speak only as loudly as required to be heard.

• Remind the caregiver that it is not necessary to raise your voice when speaking to a person with dementia. Having dementia does not equate to hearing loss.

• Gently point out that baby talk makes your loved one feel disrespected. Remind the caregiver that they are speaking to another adult who is, most likely, older than they are and deserving of their respect.

Since old habits die hard, it may take more than one conversation before you see a change in this pattern of speech. Try to be pleasantly persistent in your efforts and know that your loved one deserves to be respected and spoken to as an adult. With the many losses that come with aging, I hope we can work to encourage a dignified approach to conversation between caregivers and the people in their care.

Remember that you will become old, too, and may be reduced to just “sweetie” who is about to take a shower with her caregiver who apparently mistakes her for a toddler. Trust me, you aren’t going to like it.

Barbara Garwood is the transitional care coordinator for Lutheran Services Carolinas. For more information about caregiving, call Trinity at Home at 704-603-2776.

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