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How to Respond to Elderspeak as a CLL Patient
Posted: Apr 25, 2024
How to Respond to Elderspeak as a CLL Patient image

We've all heard it (or done it!) before. A younger nurse, doctor, occupational therapist, social worker, or other healthcare provider is speaking to an older patient in a sing-songy, baby-talk-like voice. Of course, this can happen outside of the healthcare setting, but interestingly, elderspeak is observed at higher rates in hospitals, nursing homes, and treatment clinics. 

What is Elderspeak? 

In an abstract published by the National Library of Medicine, Drs. Clarissa A. Shaw and Jean K. Gordon define elderspeak as a "simplified speech register used with older adults which sounds like baby talk... such as a high-pitched and over-nurturing voice, use of inappropriate terms of endearment (e.g., sweetie), and collective pronoun substitution (e.g., we instead of you). 

When asked, other patients' experiences with elderspeak also included dumbing down definitions, not being taken seriously with their questions, and assumptions that their intellect was declining because of their age. 

As mentioned earlier, various types of healthcare providers (be it nurses, social workers, dieticians, etc.) have been observed using elderspeak; it's not just a "nurse" or "doctor" problem. It can also be a subconscious response, not necessarily something that is brought on by the malintent of the providers. Often, providers don't even know they have initiated elderspeak until hearing a recording of their own voice post-conversation. 

So, how can CLL patients respond when they are the recipient of elderspeak? 

How Can I Appropriately Respond to Elderspeak? 

First is to remember the difference between being aggressive and being assertive. Aggressive people, especially patients, are often seen as difficult, hostile, and hard to work with. Assertive patients earn respect, and trust, and do not offend. When responding to elderspeak, you want to be assertive, not aggressive. 

A calming breath of four counts in, and six counts out, might be helpful if you are irritated and don't want to come across as aggressive. 

The second is to remember that this type of speech is often subconscious, so if you're brave enough, it might be helpful to blatantly, yet respectfully ask the question, "Are you aware that you are speaking to me in a baby voice?" You could also ask the question less directly, "Would it be ok for you to talk to me as if I were your peer instead of your grandmother?" A little humor could go a long way in this situation. 

The third is to be aware of who is speaking to you. If they are from the Southern part of the United States, or other surrounding areas, terms of endearment such as "sweetie, honey, dear, or sweetheart" are common words and ways to speak to everyone. Knowing someone's culture or upbringing can help you understand their intentions when speaking to you.

That being said, if they are using terms of endearment that you are uncomfortable with, you should let them know. "I notice you keep calling me sweetheart. I know you mean well, but it makes me feel a little strange. Do you mind just referring to me by name?" You can even ask "Where did you grow up?" or a similar conversational question if you're trying to interpret between elderspeak and cultural vocabulary. 

Last but certainly not least is standing up for yourself. If you feel that your questions aren't being taken seriously or definitions of the disease, side effects, or clinical trials are being "dumbed down," you have every right to advocate for yourself. If necessary or desired, bring a loved one with you to provide moral support. 

Respectfully explain that you notice your question wasn't answered correctly, or that you would like to know the specific medication's side effects, not just a general feel-good answer. Share your background if you feel it's appropriate to make the conversation more palatable. "I was a high-school teacher for twenty years. If I can understand the kids' continually changing vocabularies, I can understand you explain it to me in scientific terms. If I have any questions, I will ask." 

Advocating for yourself is extremely important. While doctors, nurses, or other healthcare professionals are smart, studious people, that doesn't mean that they are more intelligent than you colloquially.

If you feel you have adequately advocated for yourself, and you still feel like elderspeak is "the norm" within your facility, make the courageous decision to switch providers or clinics to a place where you will receive the respect that you deserve. 

Continue the Conversation on HealthTree Connect

Do you have more thoughts about elderspeak and how to respond appropriately? Continue the conversation on HealthTree Connect: Elderspeak Post

If this is your first time joining HealthTree Connect, you will be asked to complete a short profile before reading/commenting on the post. 


The author Audrey Burton-Bethke

about the author
Audrey Burton-Bethke

Audrey is an editor for the HealthTree Foundation. She originally joined the HealthTree Foundation in 2020 as the Myeloma Community Program Director. While not knowing much about myeloma initially, she worked hard to educate herself, empathize, and learn from others' experiences. She loves this job. Audrey is passionate about serving others, loves learning, and enjoys iced chais from Dutch Bros. She also loves spending time with her supportive husband and energetic three-year-old. 

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