Marty Stempniak, Staff Writer

In a moment of frustration, I’m sure it can happen to almost anyone in this field. Unable to connect with an elderly resident — who may have dementia or other cognitive issues — you resort to a simpler speech structure, talking more slowly and using smaller words. “Sweetie.” “Darling.” “Honey.” Baby talk, if you will.

It seems harmless at the time, but such “elderspeak,” as they call it, can be truly harmful to older adults. As Yale researcher and expert in this topic, Becca Levy says, such speech is often received as condescending and disrespectful, and can be damaging to their mental health. For some, it “sends a message that the [person] is incompetent, and begins a negative downward spiral for older adults who react with decreased self-esteem, depression and withdrawal,” she says.

This issue is, of course, nothing new for the long-term care field, but some of the industry’s brightest are seeking innovative ways to try and address elderspeak using today’s technology.

The University of Kansas School of Nursing, for one, is working on a pilot program related to the eradication of elderspeak. They’re now exploring whether an in-person training that’s been deployed to reduce this harmful language can be successfully adapted into an online format so that anyone, anywhere can reap the benefits of such classes.

LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston is helping KU researchers with this endeavor over the next few months, serving as consultants on the project, officials announced recently. Early results have shown that this online web tool, referred to as CHATO, has been as effective as its in-person counterpart. But now, they’re working to test its usefulness on an even larger sample of 120 nursing homes.

CHATO uses real videos from SNFs, helping to reinforce with caregivers the negative effects of using elderspeak. Typical sessions encourage providers to step into seniors’ shoes to better understand the impacts of one’s words.

According to the announcement, nursing home employees participating in the pilot can complete CHATO training in three one-hour sessions, which cover topics such as the components of effective communication with older adults, and proven strategies to adopt more “person-centered” methods of relating to elders.

For its part, LeadingAge’s LTSS Center is helping to create an implementation guide and training manual for the 120 nursing home participants. It’s also developing a plan to evaluate the pilot’s outcomes, and design a larger research study to evaluate the impacts of CHATO.

“We often find that people go through training and frequently do not know how to put what they’ve learned in class into practice,” says Natasha Bryant, managing director and senior research associate with the LeadingAge LTSS Center. “Our goal is to help people learn new ways to communicate with the people they’re interacting with and caring for every day.”

In the meantime, before all of these learnings hit the street, it’s wise to curb the baby talk next time you’re struggling to connect with an elder. It seems like a small switch in the grander scheme of things, but could translate in big differences to the happiness and well-being of a nursing home’s residents.

Follow Staff Writer Marty Stempniak @MStempniak.