5 Ways Elderspeak is Ruining Mealtimes

Dinner Table

Community mealtimes are an opportunity to nourish body and soul, but respect must be the main ingredient.

When you get together with friends and for a meal, what do you expect from the occasion? Most of us probably anticipate good food, time to catch up on personal news, laughter, and camaraderie. We look forward to these meals because they refresh us and make us feel valued--a member of an inner circle of people we value in turn.

These good feelings can last long after the meal, enlivening an otherwise routine day, or creating cherished memories. Mealtimes are so important culturally, they are often the setting for important life moments such as marriage proposals, announcing a new pregnancy or promotion, heartfelt talks with a loved one who needs extra emotional support.

But, if you have ever been required to show up at the table, knowing someone there will treat you poorly during dinner, it's a very different story. Have you ever had to attend a holiday meal where you predicted a certain relative would speak down to you? Made yourself go to a mandatory work event where you were sure to be insulted by a particular co-worker? Dreadful, isn't it? You probably felt stressed before, during, and after the meal.

If you passively accepted the disrespect to keep the peace, you likely stewed with unhappy resentment for days. If you resisted, snapped back at your tormentor, or otherwise acted ungraciously, you probably contributed to everyone's indigestion and had to field criticism or judgment from the rest of the guests. It's understandable if you resolved never to go to dinner with that person again. Life is short; who needs that kind of heartburn? Nobody.

Which is why we all need to take a good, hard look at how we talk to residents in our dining rooms. Too many of us, inadvertently--intending to be kind, actually--fall into a pattern of communication called "elderspeak."

What is Elderspeak?

Elderspeak is condescending or infantilizing communication directed toward older adults. It might involve the words used or tone of voice. Examples of elderspeak include:

  • Calling people “sweetie” or “honey” instead of using their names, or saying “young man” to someone who clearly is not Using a syrupy tone, babytalk, or a sing-song voice.
  • Speaking for the resident, "We're all finished with lunch now, aren't we?"
  • Basically, anytime we speak to an older adult in a way that assumes they are childlike or unable to speak for themselves, we are guilty of elderspeak.

How Does Elderspeak Affect Older Adults?Punch Out

Studies [1-2] demonstrate elderspeak is ruining mealtimes in at least five ways:

  • Residents feel elderspeak is patronizing.
  • Elderspeak causes breakdowns in communication.
  • Residents subject to elderspeak tend to be more resistant to care.
  • Using elderspeak on people with dementia frequently precipitates aggression, withdrawal, vocal outbursts, and wandering.
  • Elderspeak contributes to disrupted care and increased cost of care.

Furthermore, research shows the consequences of elderspeak take a toll on staff, adding to their stress and increasing burnout and turnover.

Obviously, elderspeak is the opposite of hospitality. It prevents us from creating a sociable, nourishing atmosphere at the table. In short, it turns servers into the equivalent of that awful relative who wrecks holiday dinners. I don't believe any of us want to be that person, so we all need to take responsibility for how we talk to the residents we serve.

How Can We Banish Elderspeak from All Dining Rooms?

Whenever we start an initiative designed to change how people communicate, there is a danger of word-policing each other, which only results in increased conflict among staff. Take care of residents and each other by working as a team to:

  • Raise awareness through training: Encourage all staff to learn together what elderspeak is, how it affects residents, and more respectful ways to communicate. Consider asking residents to share their experiences and feelings about elderspeak during a staff meeting.
  • Stop, look, and listen as a team: Acknowledge elderspeak is common and often ingrained in our day-to-day interactions. Have everyone make it a point to start noticing how and when elderspeak is happening. Sometimes, simply being more mindful can create radical changes in behavior.
  • Encourage leadership rather than confrontation: Invite everyone on your team to be part of the solution. There is no need for anyone to start accosting co-workers. Instead, ask each staff member to be a culture change leader by modeling respectful communication during their own interactions with residents.

Soon, using elderspeak will start to sound as strange and unsavory to staff as it does to residents.
Set a community-wide goal to make mealtimes happily anticipated events. You know, like gathering with your favorite friends and family around the table.

[1] Balsis, S., & Carpenter, B. (2006). Evaluations of elderspeak in a caregiving context. Clinical Gerontologist, 29(1).

[2] Herman, R., & Williams, K. (2009). Elderspeak's influence on resistiveness to care: focus on behavioral events. American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease
and Other Dementias, 24(5), 417-423.

About the Author

Cindy's PicCindy Heilman, MS, DTR has over 30 years of experience enhancing hospitality and food service quality. She is CEO of Higher Standards, LLC, author of Hospitality for Boomers: How to attract residents, retain staff, and maximize profitability, and creator of Kind Dining®