What is Elderspeak?

Have you ever found it challenging or had difficulty speaking to someone who is living with dementia or Alzheimer’s? Can you recall a time where you’ve raised your voice, changed your language or spoken slower than usual to try and communicate easier? This is elderspeak.

There are many common mistakes we all make while communicating with older adults. Most of the time we assume we are trying to help, but these mistakes can have negative effects and increase feelings of social isolation and depression. Here are some of the most common examples, and the alternatives so you can take to avoid them.

#1 Don’t assume

Don’t assume that you need to TALK LOUDER THAN USUAL,  o r   s l o w e r   b e c a u s e  he or she won’t be able to understand what you’re saying. Being spoken to like this can be patronising and condescending, leaving the individual feeling un-corporative.

Instead, speak clearly and be yourself. If you find you need to repeat yourself, don’t immediately assume this is your cue to speak louder. People often mishear words so don’t immediately assume the individual has difficulties with their hearing.

#2 Don’t use child-like language

There’s absolutely no need to speak in a simplified language, or speak in a higher-pitched voice like you would speaking to a baby or a pet. In general, adults maintain their current vocabulary and continue to grow it so there is no need to simplify any words you use.

Don’t forget that older adults have lived for many more years than you have, so you may find they have an interest or related story of their own that they’d like to tell.

Obviously be wary of any slang language. i.e. words that teenagers are currently using, but won’t be used again in 6 months’ time. Let’s be honest, who really understands teenage slang except for teenagers?

#3 Do use their names

Avoid using pronouns like “us” or “we”, and address the individual as you would anyone else. For example, instead of asking “how are we today?” ask “how are you today?”. This is also relevant for pet names like “darling” or “sweetheart”, address the person directly with their preferred name or title.

Elderpseak assumes that the individual is dependent or incompetent which can decrease a person’s motivation to engage in everyday tasks and can lead to depression. Try to avoid this by addressing the older adult as you would anybody else.

#4 Do Engage

When you walk into a room, address everyone as you would in any other situation. Say hello, address he or she with their name or title. Don’t ask someone else in the room how “they are today?”

One key danger with elderspeak is that the language assumes that one person has a greater value, power and knowledge than the other individual listening. Avoid this by engaging in genuine conversation with the older adult. Take a seat, smile, make eye-contact. Don’t walk into a situation with pre-judgments, there really isn’t any need.

#5 Don’t talk in the past

Asking elderly people “what they used to be” or “what they used to do” can prompt feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness. An individual’s career is a massive part of their identity which stretches across most your adult life. Stripping someone of that can be devastating.

Instead, how about asking them to share their favourite stories of their career? This will give you a good idea of what their favourite job or role. It’s the perfect opportunity to start conversations about happy memories, plus you might hear a fascinating story and learn something!