What is Elderspeak?
Elderspeak is a form of ageism or stereotyping based on age. It is a particular way some younger adults speak to older adults. For example, someone using elderspeak might use a ‘singsong’ tone, or speak louder and talk more slowly when interacting with an older adult. Or, they might use simple vocabulary as though talking with a young child and combine it with patronizing terms like “dearie” or “sweetie” or using “we” rather than “you” when asking a question.
I live in a rural community were terms of endearment such as “honey” or “sweetie” are frequently used. However, when those terms are reserved for older adults or when they are packaged with other signals such as vocal tone, increased volume, simple speech, etc., it is more likely a result of age stereotyping.
According to a Changing Aging article, elderspeak is based on certain stereotypical assumptions such as the older person is dependent, weak, or suffering from memory or hearing problems. Elderspeak also assumes that the person speaking has more value or wisdom than the older adult they are addressing.
Shortly after I turned sixty, I had an ‘elderspeak’ encounter that helped me become aware of how demeaning such treatment can feel. After finishing my day teaching speech communication classes at our local community college, I zipped across town for a dental appointment. When my name was called, a young receptionist called my name, then she put her hand on my back to escort me and said with increased volume and a slower rate of speech, “Come this way, sweetie.” For the first time in years, I felt speechless.
Why Should You Care if Someone Uses Elderspeak?
Anyone who is perceived as ‘no longer young’ can be subject to ageist, elderspeak communication. However, because women are smaller in stature and might be perceived as more vulnerable or frail, they are likely to experience elderspeak more frequently than do some men.
Some interesting research has been conducted on elderspeak and how it affects older adults. When repeatedly exposed to demeaning or patronizing language, the tendency for the targets of elderspeak is to internalize the message of incompetence. When such messages are internalized, they may adversely affect health outcomes.
A study reported in the Yale University News found that ageism costs Americans 63 billion dollars in health-related costs each year. Stress associated with ageism was found to “impact many health outcomes.” Some of the health conditions examined in the study include mental disorders, cardiovascular disease, and chronic respiratory disease.
Ultimately, elderspeak costs all of us—one way or another. We all need to be aware of it and be willing to create ‘teachable moments’ when we hear it.
What Can You Do About Elderspeak?
Generally, I don’t believe most people use elderspeak intentionally. We don’t talk about ageism in the same way as we do racism or sexism. Ageism tends to go unchecked in our youth-centric culture. Professor Becca Levy, a widely recognized expert on the effects of ageism, said, “Ageism is one of the least visible prejudices.”
One action each of us can take is to make ageist communication visible. We can explain what elderspeak means when we have an opportunity to bring it into conversations. We can also write and speak about it when given the opportunity.
If you have experienced elderspeak as an older adult, you can likely count on having some repeat experiences. Sometimes we don’t need to say anything. We can stand tall, look people in the eye, and let them know that we are not frail, helpless, or feeble. Other times, it can be helpful to anticipate elderspeak experiences and have an appropriate response prepared in advance. Personally, I look for ‘teachable moments’ when someone addresses me using elderspeak.
A couple of months ago, I took my husband to a medical center for some outpatient surgery. Because I was the designated driver, the medical receptionist asked my name but then kept referring to me as “honey” and “sweetie,” I gently reminded her that my name was Paula. She continued to address me as “sweetie” and used exaggerated expressions, while slowly reading instructions to me. Then she asked, “Do we have any questions?” I responded using a friendly tone, “I feel like you are trying to help me and I do appreciate it. What you might not be aware of is that how you are trying to help could be interpreted as elderspeak. She asked me what ‘elderspeak’ meant. After I explained it to her, she said, “I had no idea.” Then she thanked me for bringing it to her attention. A few minutes later, she sat down with me for a few minutes, and we chatted about her work and her future career plans.
Sometimes I have to think about how I want to respond to elderspeak. Most importantly, I try to make sure my tone and facial expressions don’t put people on the defensive. I want to communicate in a positive, friendly manner to increase the likelihood that my interactions will become teachable moments rather than confrontational ones.
My challenge to you is to become part of the solution to a costly problem. We can change the narrative about aging but is going to take time and collective effort.