Bioethics Blogs

Elderspeak: Words Can Hurt

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

During the season premiere of the HBO comedy, Getting On, I noticed the excessive use of toddler-speak toward patients portrayed as being elderly. The show takes place in a senior rehab/hospice unit in a community hospital. Whenever one of the health care providers (physician or nurse) was speaking to one of the patients, they tended to use baby talk—higher pitch, lilting tone, longer spaces between words, elongated space around vowels, and using simple, shortened words. When speaking to a baby or a toddler, such tones may help them to learn language, provide amusement, and get their attention. What struck me is that the characters were people who had lived a long time. In one instance, one physician talked to a patient who had also been a physician like she was an infant.

Some of the patients had dementia, but others were perfectly capacitated. These people had lived full lives and continued to have meaningful lives—having raised families, had careers, taken care of themselves and others, and made contributions to society, they were being spoken to as if they were 2 years old.

I wondered whether this blatant disrespect was just a television invention or something real. As it turns out, it is real. A New York Times piece in 2008 discussed how not just in medicine, but in all areas of life, society tends to talk to seniors in a different ways using terms like “”sweetie” and “dear.” In a 2010 study and a 2009 study , researcher Kristine Williams found that seniors who are spoken to in elderspeak tend to be more resistant to care.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.