“Elderspeak” – Helpful or Harmful?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

“Elderspeak” is a pattern of speech that mimics baby talk, or how we speak to pets. Verbal communication conveys thoughts, information, and feelings.


The old adage; ”it isn’t what you say but how you say it” is so true. We react to how we are spoken to. It is self-defeating when a speech pattern negates the actual message. Seniors do not speak to one another with such a cadence. Younger people are more apt to use this pattern when speaking with older adults. Unfortunately, “elderspeak” tends to be condescending, causing feelings of resentment in the older person.


We tailor our speech to the perceptions we have of the person to whom we are speaking. When a young person perceives a communication to be difficult or unconsciously considers the older person to have limited comprehension, they often revert to speaking down to them. The elder feels patronized and communication is stilted.

This misconception by the speaker of the listener’s ability to comprehend causes the speaker to:

~Slow down speech & simplified grammar.

~Use the words “we” or “us” instead of “you”.

~Frequently use words like “honey”, “dear” or “sweetie” which are unprofessional and can be experienced as diminutive.

Many older adults tolerate this type of speech from clerks, medical personnel and staff in communal living communities. Unless the senior has cognitive, speech or memory impairment, they are able to understand normal speech. “Elderspeak” then becomes degrading and can be harmful to the senior’s mental and physical health. Hats off to the senior who calls it out as ageism.

Using a sing-song tone or baby talk confuses and distorts the message, resulting in decreased understanding.   As you can imagine, older folks retaining their mental faculties are not pleased when spoken to like children   Harmful effects include: resentment, anger, and can lower self-esteem.

Improved Speaking Techniques

For positive, well-received and better communication with older adults, try:

~Speaking respectfully – they are adults with lots of life experience.

~Talking in a manner that reflects the dignity of the senior.

~Using simple sentences and break down complex thoughts into smaller pieces.

~Conveying concrete information directly.

~Using your normal tone. You may need to speak louder but retain your pitch and tone.

~Repeating important points, but in different ways.

You will find in-home care when the caregiver needs to cajole or persuade a client to do something they don’t want to do, i.e. shower, get dressed or go to an appointment, a seasoned aide will use positive or direct language and speech do so. They will show respect for the client’s dignity and usually get a positive result.  Once there is a rapport or a longer standing relationship, then using familiar words like “dear” can be used. It is recommended to check first with the senior how they wish to be addressed. Also  ask their permission before touching someone. A well-meaning shoulder rub can easily rub the person the wrong way. Showing respect for a person’s innate dignity is a good way to engage someone, resulting in a positive exchange.