'Baby Talk' Irritates Alzheimer's Patients

But Williams says that the researchers looked at residents' behavior seven seconds before the nurses began using elderspeak, and did not find that the residents were resistant to care at that time.

However, they noticed that seven seconds after the nurses used elderspeak, the residents tended to be less cooperative.

"Speaking to a person as an adult and respecting the fact that he is an adult is probably going to get a whole lot more cooperation," says Mary Mittelman, director of psychosocial research and support at the Silberstein Institute for Aging and Dementia at New York University School of Medicine.

One of Mittelman's research projects involves studying Alzheimer's patients and caregivers who visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

She says that one particular man with the condition was particularly happy that the museum tours were conducted "like he was a regular person."

"It is a mistake to assume that [the diagnosis] means that a person becomes more like a baby," Mittelman says. "They may still have a lot of memories from far-distant times, even if they don't remember what happened five minutes ago. They have a history, which babies don't."

Kawas agrees.

"I think there is a tendency for people to infantilize patients, and I do think that it is dead wrong to assume that their language or their ability to interact with you is regressing," she says. "That's not what the disease does."

She explains that when we learn as children, we learn the names of objects first and move on to conquering grammar. However, the brain doesn't just reverse this process during dementia.

"You start losing at the other end rather than just walking back through your abilities," Kawas says. "People with dementia might not be able to remember the word for ball when they want it, but they still have incredibly intact grammatical skills."

Speaking Simply

That's not to say that more simple communication isn't necessary. Especially in the later stages of Alzheimer's disease, people may need to have activities and instructions broken down into steps, and they may respond more easily to yes or no questions.

"An open-ended question is more difficult because a person has to find and put together all the thoughts into words to communicate it," Williams says.

Even so, "that's different than talking down to them," Kawas says.

In clinic, Kawas says she has noticed that health-care professionals may transition from formal titles such as "mister" and "missus" to calling patients by their first names as their dementia progresses.

"I don't think that's right," Kawas says. "They're the same person. They deserve the same respect that they had before they had memory loss."

Baron says that even in the midst of her frustrations and the pain of watching her mother suffer, she tries to preserve that level of communication that not so long ago they could both sustain.

"Do I resort to baby talk? No," she says. "As sad as the disease is, there's a beauty in the innocence that's there, and I still think it's important to maintain their dignity."

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