You may not even realize you do it, but if you talk to an elderly person in a sing-song, high-pitched voice, you are using elderspeak.

Do you or your colleagues use elderspeak? Do you talk to your senior patients as if they’re little children? You may not even realize you do it, but if you talk to an elderly person in a sing-song, high-pitched voice, you use “we” as in “how are we feeling today?” and/or call him or her “dearie,” or “sweetie,” you are using elderspeak.

Other than losing their health, the things that seniors fear most is losing their individuality and their ability to function on their own. While their ability to function isn’t always something that can be controlled, allowing them to keep their individuality is possible without much effort on our part.

The issue of elderspeak and the reaction to it caught the attention of researchers, whose findings will appear in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias. The researchers found that the elderspeak used by nursing staff did not reassure the patients as it was intended, but it caused patients to feel incompetent, which in turn could cause them to act out. This acting out could be as simple as withdrawing and not wanting to interact or it could involve being uncooperative with performing every day activities. Even nonverbal patients can react and their displeasure can be seen in their facial expressions and their reactions to receiving care.

Perhaps the problem begins even before the seniors are our patients. Many seniors report being treated differently by store clerks, restaurant servers, even by people they happen across on the street. If a senior is with a companion who is noticeably younger, it’s not unusual for a clerk to address the younger person, ignoring the older one. It’s not unusual for someone to do something in the guise of being helpful to the senior, only to be robbing the senior of being able to do the task on his or her own, be it ordering food in a restaurant or asking a salesclerk a question.

I think it all comes back to how do we, ourselves, want to be treated. Do we want to be treated like the intelligent people we are or like the lost souls that others may think we are once we age?

Even if a person does have dementia — even if he or she will forget what you said within moments – doesn’t this person still have the right to be spoken to in a respectful and dignified manner?

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