Tuesday, October 7, 2008

How do you speak to the elderly?

One of my strongest pet peeves as a nurse is healthcare professionals speaking to seniors as if they're small children or in a dismissive way. I hate to hear people calling them "sweetie" or other names like that unless they are related or friends. To me, a total stranger calling you "sweetie" or something like that is insulting and demeaning.

I know people mean well - they think it's a way of connecting or being kind. But it seems I'm not alone in thinking that the end result is not what they wanted. This type of talk is called "elderspeak" as opposed to baby talk. In a recent study, researchers watched how nursing staff interacted with patients who had mild to moderate dementia. They found that the patients who were talked down to ("good girl" and "how are we feeling?", for example) became more aggressive and uncooperative. Those who weren't verbal showed their displeasure with their facial expressions and by being resistant to care. This can become a downward spiral because those who are providing care tend to limit the amount of time they spend with patients who are more difficult to care for.

And the language - what about the language that we use? When I worked with seniors, I reached a point that I refused to say "bib" or "diaper" to them. When it was time to eat, I'd say something like, "let me put this on you to protect your clothes," or "let me put this cover over your shirt." And diaper? Never. I would say I was changing their brief. It's just a word, but a diaper? No, it's not a diaper. Babies wear diapers.

How do you - as non-healthcare people treat seniors? I know one person who doesn't let her completely lucid 84 year old mother make her own decisions in a restaurant. The daughter orders for her mother and tells her mother that she doesn't need what she really wanted. The daughter answers for her mother too. And - there's nothing wrong with her mother!

We do everything we can to encourage independence in our children - why does this change with our elders?

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