Is there a difference between petspeak and elderspeak? That’s what I was thinking about this week.
I had just parked my car in a parking lot at Washington Square Shopping Mall near Portland, Oregon. I happened to be with a friend at the time. As my friend and I got out of the car, we noticed a grey-haired woman gently lifting a little poodle from the back of her mini-van. The woman cooed at her dog and used ‘petspeak’ saying something like, “There you go my sweet little precious.”
My friend and I looked at each other while trying to control our amusement. When the woman was out of sight, we both chuckled. To us, it sounded silly to hear an older woman talk to her dog as though it was a young child.
Why Do People Care If We Use Petspeak?
More than twenty years later, I became a doting dog parent. I don’t have a poodle, but I have a 110-pound black lab. I talk to our “Ranger” like he’s a small child saying things like, “How’s my precious today? Oh, you’re such a sweetie!” I use exaggerated tones and speak to the dog like he is a small child. Family members have teased me about how I talk to ‘the dog’ and have questioned the appropriateness of my communication at times.
Yet I know I’m not alone. Other people I know also treat their dogs and cats like young family members. Yesterday when talking to a local community group about ageism, I confessed that I used ‘petspeak’ when talking to our dog. Some of the members in the audience nodded and told me that they also treated their pets the same way.
Why Don’t People Care When Others Use Elderspeak?
I do understand why some people—particularly those people who don’t have dogs or cats– might feel ‘petspeak’ deserves a reaction. After all, it might some odd that anyone would use baby talk when speaking to ‘nothing more than a pet.’ However, I cannot understand why people don’t feel the need to react when they observe others speaking to older people as though they were family pets.
Sadly, elderspeak—the use of baby talk and exaggerated tones when talking with older people—has become normalized to such a degree that very few people recognize it as a degrading form of communication. A few years ago, I was in the waiting room of my dentist’s office; while I waited, I graded papers. Then a twenty-something dental assistant called my name. I hadn’t seen her before. The young woman started using ‘elderspeak’ with me by saying, “It’s your turn to see the dentist, sweetie.” She put her hand on my back and patted me – as though I was a dog. Other staff members were standing nearby. No one seemed to notice until I stiffened and turned toward the assistant who was trying to guide me. I looked at her directly in the eye, using that ‘teacher look’ that can immediately stop people in their tracks. As I looked at the assistant, I said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Excuse me?” The assistant removed her hand from my back and then led me into the examining room without further comment. (I do want to point out that I was a mere 59 at the time of this encounter.)
How Can We Take a Bite Out of Elderspeak?
Because I know what elderspeak looks like, I am willing to call it out when I see it or experience it. Unfortunately, I hear it far too often. I try to remain calm and direct when I confront this inappropriate behavior. Depending on the situation, sometimes I gently let people know that they sound like me when I’m talking to my dog.
As others communicate with us using elderspeak language, it can be demeaning to the point that we begin to question our value and competence as adults. If we don’t call out elderspeak, it will continue to become more normalized. I encourage you to speak up and speak out when you experience or witness degrading elderspeak communication.