Advice & Information

Dos & Don’ts of Communicating with Adults with Dementia

“What’s in a name?” For adults with dementia, names are important to maintaining dignity and well-being. 

While you may use impersonal pet names such as “dear,” “honey,” “sweetie,” or “buddy” in some of your relationships, these terms can be demeaning to older adults. 

Called “elderspeak,” these generic terms of endearment can be harmful to seniors in memory care. Let’s take a closer look at what elderspeak is and some helpful Dos and Don’ts for communicating with older adults who have dementia.


What Is Elderspeak?

Elderspeak is characterized by talking to older adults as if they were infants. This can include using terms of endearment (dear, honey, sweetie, buddy, etc.), speaking very slowly, or raising  your voice to an exaggerated volume. 

Those who use elderspeak may have good intentions, but this type of speech can be patronizing to seniors. Older adults in memory care have lived rich lives, raised families, had successful careers, and more. 

It’s essential to continue to honor these individuals by treating them as adults, even in the little details such as names and nicknames.

The Harm of Elderspeak 

Every older adult in memory care is an individual with a unique self. Talking to them in an impersonal or infantilizing way is widely considered inappropriate and harmful.

“If you know you’re losing your cognitive abilities and trying to maintain your personhood, and someone talks to you like a baby, it’s upsetting to you,” claims Kristine Williams, professor at the University of Kansas School of Nursing.

Names are especially important in dementia care, as they reinforce the individual’s sense of self and provide them comfort. Using generic pet names takes away the power of their unique name and can even add to older adults’ confusion in memory care.

In addition, elderspeak has been shown to result in negative effects on older adults, such as:

Dos of Communicating with Adults with Dementia

Given that elderspeak can be harmful, you may be wondering how best to communicate and interact with older adults. Actions to take in order to honor the senior’s legacy include:

Never Assume

First of all, you should never assume what an individual requires upfront. While you may need to speak distinctly or repeat phrases as needed, you should never use a babying tone of voice. Always treat seniors with respect and don’t adjust your speech until you understand the individual’s needs.

Ask When in Doubt

In addition, you should always ask individuals about their preferred name and only use terms of endearment if the older adult has specifically asked you to do so. Overall, use the same level of respect you would for your own peers when talking to adults in memory care.

Coordinate Across Care

Finally, those in memory care may not be able to advocate for themselves and express what they wish to be called. In these cases, you should coordinate with staff at the memory care community to ensure they’re using the right name with your parent.

Tips for Avoiding Elderspeak

Other general tips for avoiding elderspeak when interacting with your loved one include:

1. Set Expectations with Caregivers

If your parent has recently moved to memory care, it’s the perfect opportunity to guide staff on how to address your loved one. You can avoid elderspeak and empower your parent’s care journey by communicating their preferred names and setting expectations right away.

2. Lead by Example

Support your parent in memory care by honoring their personhood in your own communications. Use “Mom/Dad” or their preferred name when referring to them so they can feel comforted and empowered. 

In addition, it’s tough for staff to avoid elderspeak when you or your family members aren’t modeling the right names with your loved one.

3. Advocate for Your Parent

If you notice that staff or other family members are still utilizing elderspeak, speak up. Your parent deserves highly personalized care that uplifts their legacy instead of damaging it.

 Whenever possible, advocate for your loved one’s care when it comes to names and terms of endearment.

Promote Your Parent’s Dignity in Memory Care

At the end of the day, it’s important that your parent is being treated with respect through the use of their preferred names in place of generic terms of endearment.

At Varenita, we’re keen to provide person-centered care that’s as customized as possible. We honor every individual by understanding their legacies, preferences, and needs to uphold their dignity as they receive individualized care to their cognitive needs while living in Memory Care. Learn more about our memory care community by contacting us online or calling (805) 413-3300.