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Don’t Use Cutesy Nicknames (and Other Tips to Communicate with Older Adults)

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by Ellen Blake

Older adults deserve respect and dignity

I recently returned from a visit with my elderly Dad who lives independently with some care in the house. His short-term memory is pretty much non-existent, but there is nothing wrong with his long-term memory. We are fortunate to have a caregiver who treats him with respect and patience. Other people, though, those who come in and out of the house for one reason or another, treat him like a child, often speaking slowly and loudly. His body and mind are not what they were when younger, but he certainly has not regressed to childhood – and there is nothing wrong with his hearing. Why do likely well-meaning people make assumptions when they see a slow-moving elderly person?

It’s essential to remember not to patronize older adults. I, too, have to remind myself sometimes as it’s easy to inadvertently do just that. It’s understandable that someone with Dad’s life experience finds it belittling for a younger person or his daughter to tell him what to do. “I’m still the parent” is a phrase I hear often from him. If I want to engage him in a conversation or get him to do something, talking down to him does not work. Here are some tips for talking to older adults.

Tips for engaging with older adults

Don’t give advice unless asked

Keep your pearls of wisdom to yourself unless specifically asked. I made the mistake of reminding Dad to put on his pajamas when he went to bed. His response? “Wow, that’s condescending”.  He’s right. The reason for my reminder is because the night before he fell asleep in his clothes. And so what. Usually, he remembers and it’s not the end of the world if he forgets occasionally. Find a way to give encouragement and offer your opinion on a matter without giving advice. 

Avoid “elderspeak”

Elderspeak involves speaking slowly, often using a high-pitched voice and oversimplifying words and statements. Basically, it’s speaking to the older adult as if they are an infant or young child.  It “infantilizes” them. Even with an elder with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, “elderspeak” is insulting and takes away their dignity. Keep your volume in check; it should be high enough to be heard above any background noise and no more.

Don’t use cutesy nicknames 

Don’t call an older adult a pet name unless you know it’s ok with them. Many feel that sweetie, honey and other terms of endearment are condescending. 

Don’t make assumptions

All elderly people do not want to be treated the same, just as all young people do not want to be treated the same. Remember, too, that not all older adults have cognitive or physical deficits. Leave your assumptions at the door so you don’t unintentionally slight someone.  Don’t assume your help is needed; wait until asked or you get some cue, then offer it.

What to talk about

Ask questions. Be interested and listen carefully without interrupting so you don’t miss anything. Older adults like to share their stories and enjoy the attention. Older adults have much to share. Some topics to ask about:

  • childhood
  • career
  • favorite memories
  • how they met their spouse
  • what do they remember about their parents and grandparents

The bottom line 

I love the phrase, “we are all old people in training”. Think about how you might want people to treat you in the future when interacting with the older adults in your life. As frustrating as caregiving can be, you may find things go a whole lot more smoothly when your loved one feels respected. 

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