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Elderspeak: Combating Ageism in Speaking to Seniors


Watch what occurs at your next family gathering when a new mom places her baby in someone’s arms. The person will likely transition immediately into baby mode: a high-pitched, sing-song voice, exaggerated facial expressions, and overly-simplified speech. Of course, this is quite normal and actually good for a baby's growing brain.

Hopefully, however, when that infant's great-grandmother enters the room, family members avoid responding similarly. However, it happens so often, and can be so harmful to older adults, that there’s a word to describe this form of ageism: elderspeak.

A recent study by Susan Kemper, a professor specializing in gerontology at the University of Kansas, paired senior listeners with younger speakers. In spite of the seniors’ instructions just to listen without interrupting while the younger people spoke to them – thus leaving no suggestion to the speakers that they were having any problems understanding what was being said – in a great majority of cases, the speakers resorted to elderspeak.

It’s interesting to note as well that seniors regularly keep from using elderspeak with each other. Research has found that for a lot of older adults, elderspeak conveys superiority and a cold attitude.

Why It’s Harmful

Simply put, elderspeak could be perceived as patronizing and belittling. A form of ageism, it communicates beliefs of incompetency and inferiority to seniors, instead of the admiration and respect they deserve. While typically well-meaning and intended to convey endearment, it ususally has the reverse effect.


What to Do Instead


  • Thoughtfully consider how to address the older adults that you know. Many seniors find terms like “young lady,” "dearie," or "honey" to be offensive.

  • Use proper care when modifying how you speak to an older adult based on individual need. For instance, speaking slowly and clearly while facing a senior loved one with hearing loss is beneficial. A high-pitched voice, however, may actually further distort the words. A senior with memory issues can better follow the conversation if it's broken down into simple, short sentences and yes-or-no questions. This can very easily be accomplished without resorting to baby talk.

  • Remember that there's no one-size-fits-all approach, as each individual has unique preferences and challenges. An open and honest conversation with the person about how they would like to be addressed and spoken to is the ideal way to ensure you’re engaging with them appropriately.


The Care Company, the experts in Toronto in home care, places a great emphasis on respectful interactions with each and every older adult within our care. Email or call us at (416) 422-2273 for an in-home consultation to find out how we can help promote independence for older adults with customized in-home support throughout the Toronto metro area.

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