Carol Cummings, RN, BSN, Expert on Aging Well

Contact Carol
03 April 2017

don't call grandma sweetie

During a recent visit to a nail salon, the technician repeatedly referred to me as “sweetie.” I bristled every time she said it. I know she was trying to be nice, but in reality she left me feeling diminished. While reflecting on this later I was a bit baffled by the fact that even though I did not like it, I did not ask her to stop. I am generally an assertive person, but something about being in the situation of being “cared for” that made me hesitate to speak up.

Many seniors experience this form of patronizing speech every day. This phenomenon is referred to as Elderspeak and it includes caregivers calling seniors pet names and speaking to them in a condescending style that involves speaking slowly, simplifying vocabulary, and using high pitched tones that one would use when speaking to a child. However, using pet names or changing speech patterns when addressing older adults reinforces a negative stereotype of aging and can lead to poor health outcomes.

It reminds me of our residents who are in some way in a vulnerable circumstance, dependent on others and being addressed as “honey”, “sweetie” or “good girl.” (Even I have been guilty of some version of it – “Isn’t she ‘cute’?” – during my career working with older adults.) Just like my nail technician, these caregivers mean well and probably have a deep affection for the people in their care.

Yale University professor and researcher Dr. Becca Levy has done extensive research on the connection between aging attitudes and health. Levy’s research suggests that the negative messages behind Elderspeak lead to lowered self-esteem and a more negative perception of aging the net of which is worse functional health over time including lower rates of survival.  

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias demonstrated that older adults with Alzheimer’s disease who were spoken to with Elderspeak demonstrated a negative response through a much greater resistance to care.

When those of us who work with older adults use Elderspeak, not only do we inadvertently do harm to the senior, but we set an example that others think is ok to follow.  So let’s all check our attitudes and approach to seniors, their well-being depends on it.

Be Well on Purpose!


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