Gaga, goo-goo? Alzheimer’s patients dislike baby talk

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"How are we doing today, Sweetie?" How would you feel if somebody conversed with you in baby talk? Not very happy, I would assume. Alzheimer’s patients are no different.

A new study finds that people with Alzheimer’s react negatively when spoken to like infants. So-called elderspeak can cause agitation and even acting out among patients, researchers form the University of Kansas School of Nursing found.

The reason? They want to be treated like adults, researchers believe.

Just to get our terms straight, baby talk involves an overly caring but controlling tone of voice, shortened sentences, repetition, intimate terms of endearment (“sweetie” or “dear”) and a tendency to treat the person as a child.

The findings of this study, which were presented at the Alzheimer Association's International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease, in Chicago, this week, are significant for a couple reasons. First, they indicate that many people with Alzheimer’s have cognitive abilities even if they might not be readily apparent. They also reinforce the oft-misunderstood concept that people with Alzheimer’s disease want to be treated like their old selves. That might sound simple, but it may be hard for many people living or working with someone with the degenerative disease to grasp.

It turns out that we can learn a lot from those people and organizations that have a sophisticated understanding of the disease. Sunrise Senior Living, which has a specialty in Alzheimer’s, offers a modern approach to caring for those with dementia. It offers six principles of service: preserving dignity, nurturing the spirit, celebrating individuality, enabling freedom of choice, encouraging independence and involving family and friends.

All these pillars support the concept of connecting with that person before he or she got sick. It’s a known fact that Alzheimer’s erodes people’s intelligence and personality. But remembering who that person was helps keep his or her dignity intact.

Treat adults with respect. That’s a good lesson to keep in mind—and not just when speaking to those with Alzheimer’s.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.