Using terms such as dear or sweetie should be avoided when talking to people with Alzheimer’s disease, a new study has suggested. While the words, which are referred to as elderspeak, may seem friendly, they can actually feel patronising to the person involved and even lead to a downward spiral in the advancement of the condition.
Researchers at Saint Mary’s College of California looked into the effects of elderspeak and how sometimes it is coupled with talking loudly and slowly. They observed nuns at a midwestern convent who have intentionally taken a different approach when taking care of sisters who have been diagnosed with dementia.
Despite the communication skills of those afflicted with the condition being severely diminished, the nuns speak to them as normal. The nuns tell jokes and stories, as well as blessing them, which has been found to be more beneficial than speaking to them as if they were children.
Dr Anna Corwin, who headed up the research, spent ten months observing the nuns’ practices over a period between 2008 and 2013. She analysed the verbal interactions of nuns offering care to their elders in more than 100 hours of conversation across 26 visits. The nuns with dementia were aged between 81 and 92.
She said: “It is beautiful watching these nuns. They accept decline. They value a person in a sort of inherent way.”
The approach of the caregiving nuns was to hold the hands of those suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and aphasia and sometimes massage their legs. Dr Corwin only heard elderspeak used on two occasions in the convent and both times it was from the same caregiver.
It is thought that saying dear, sweetie or other seemingly patronising terminology can make patients feel incompetent. This, in turn, has been associated with a downward spiral in terms of cognitive decline and social isolation.
What Dr Corwin observed was communications undertaken in a different way, much of which was based on long-established relationships to the nature of the convent. Despite this, it is thought that such techniques could be taught to caregivers in a number of diverse settings.
Dr Corwin added: “There's really something about the way the nuns see their older peers that I think is motivating these linguistic interactions. They see these older adults, even when they're lying in bed moaning and can't move, as not being reduced by these chronic conditions but still as whole individuals.”
Other studies that have looked into elderspeak have had similar findings, but the nature of seeing an alternative method effectively used in the convent has developed the topic further. It is no use simply telling carers not to use elderspeak, but important that appropriate training is undertaken to find a way in which communicating with older people with such conditions can be achieved.