- Talking down to older people is called “elderspeak” or “baby talk.” This is a form of infantilization.
- The language is offensive to those on the receiving end, as it is interpreted as patronizing and condescending.
- It is preferable to ask how a person wants to be addressed.
“How are we doing today, sweetie?” the nurse asked John, a patient in an assisted living residence. He was offended when the staff spoke to him in this way because it made him feel like a child.
Talking down to older people is called “elderspeak” or “baby talk.” This is ageism and also a form of infantilization, when an adult is treated like a child. This kind of language is often offensive to those on the receiving end because it is interpreted as patronizing and condescending.
How to spot infantilization
Some common expressions of verbal infantilization involve addressing older people as though they are children, praising and coddling adults as a “good girl” or a “good boy” and referring to someone as a “little old man” or a “sweet old lady.” Infantilizing questions include “Did you behave yourself?” or using the “royal we” as in “How are we doing today?”
Using diminutives such as “honey," “dear," and “baby” with older people can be seen as overly familiar and disrespectful, especially when strangers use them. It can include calling an adult “cute," “sweet,” or “adorable." People who speak like this are often well-intentioned and these names are usually intended to be flattering or to show care or be playful. However, this language may also be construed as demeaning because it resembles speech more typically used when talking to a baby, a small child, or a pet.
This kind of talk features simplified speech, exaggerated pitch, speaking slowly and in an emotional tone, and often over-explaining concepts. Terminology associated with infants is also used, such as referring to “diapers” instead of disposable underwear, or “bib” instead of a smock or clothing protector. Infantilization can involve conflating age with disability, by assuming older people are deaf and speaking to them at an overly high volume, supposing that older people are cognitively impaired and need to have their memories “refreshed” on each visit, or ignoring them by talking about them as if they were not there.
Infantilizing people with disabilities
Many of these behaviors and phrases are offensive to people with disabilities, too. Infantilization is often a form of ableism. Some people use condescending and patronizing language when talking to people with disabilities. They may raise their voices and speak slowly and deliberately, or ignore the person altogether by talking to their companion, sign language interpreter, or another adult instead. This behavior is offensive because it underestimates a person’s cognitive abilities and implies that people with disabilities are invisible, don’t matter, or don’t have anything meaningful to communicate.
Infantilization is often carried out by staff in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and other services for older people and people with disabilities. This age-inappropriate language can be deemed unprofessional, because the recipients are paying clients. Treating adults as children implies they have made a backward movement to earlier developmental stages, with no recognition of the lifetime of experience that separates them from children. Infantilization might appear to be caring or nurturing behavior, but it can be degrading and humiliating. The cumulative effects of the conceptual linkage between old age or disability and childhood can lead to social responses such as depression, a loss of identity, and withdrawal. Some people may begin to internalize these ideas and in a self-fulfilling prophecy, infantilization can lead to child-like behaviors.
How to avoid infantilizing
Rather than using offensive infantilizing language it is preferable to establish boundaries and ask how a person wants to be addressed, especially for older people and people with disabilities who may have a loss of control over their lives and are offered few choices.
These members of our community deserve to be treated with consideration, respect, and full recognition of their personal dignity.
Farinas, Creigh, & Farinas, Caley. 2015. Don’t Call My Sister Cute. Six Good Reasons To Stop Infantilizing Disabled People. Everyday Feminism. https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/12/infantalizing-disabled-people/
Senator, Susan. 2018. Infantilization and Ableism: Quiet, Insidious, Omnipresent. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-families-are-not-alike/2018…
Stollznow, Karen. 2020. On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present. Cambridge University Press.