Elderspeak in Dementia – a changed quality of communication?

June, 2018

Have you considered how you speak to residents living in your facility and especially those with a diagnosis of dementia?

Research tells us that our communication may not be aligned with best practice. Elderspeak is a term that refers to the change in communication style that occurs between older adults and their families and carers.

It has been documented that it can negatively change the elderly person’s self-concept and be the catalyst for alterations in their sense of personhood.

Changed Quality of Communication

Carer staff are noted to use this style and in general come from a younger generation base so this appears to be an intergenerational communication issue. It has also been stated that it may increase the occasions of ‘resistance to care’ (RTC) and particularly for those with a diagnosis of dementia.

There may be diverse international, cultural and language elements related to the presence of elderspeak, and for some residents it may however be their interpretation of warmth or caring.

National Seniors Australia (2010) published a short article in their member magazine about elderspeak and summarised this as ‘slow speech, simplified syntax, vocabulary restriction and exaggerated prosody’.

There is recognition that the changes which occur in the language performance of aging adults are relatively minor. These however, can be affected by the ability to process language information rapidly and effectively, hearing loss, changes in vision and the presence of problems with memory for recent events.

There are many observations about the basic communication patterns in relation to elderly persons.

Research has noted a general lack of conversation and when it did occur, it tended to be task related speaking. There was also a reduced Mean Length of Utterance (MLU) which is a reduction in the phrase and sentence length used during conversations.

Generally there is a sense of inequality in the conversation.

There was a general implication that elderspeak could be the start of a negative feedback loop leading to depression, increase a person’s sense of dependency and social isolation.

In addition to the use of elderspeak there are additional communication behaviours that can impact on the person with dementia. The practice of addressing family members instead of the person with dementia, disrespecting their choices or decisions and the use of patronising comments or non-verbal behaviours.

So the next time you have a conversation with a resident, don’t have preconceived ideas about that person.

Look beyond their current functioning and show appreciation of their family, social, civic, professional and personal contributions they have made within their lifetime. Give your next conversation the time and respectful attention it deserves.

Karen Malcolm B.Sp Thy (UQ), Grad Cert Health M’ment (QUT), MSPAA, CPSP
Senior Speech Pathologist

Dietitians Australia

Don’t let your residents or budget experience the side effects of malnutrition or dysphagia.
Call us on 1300 850 246 or email and request a call back.

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