Baby-talking our elders

My grandmother is in very poor health. She’s in a nursing home most of the time, but currently she’s in the hospital battling pneumonia and the effects of a heart attack discovered after the fact.

She can barely see, can barely hear out of one ear, can’t walk due to diabetes and osteoporosis. She is incontinent. She has one breast. When they did the mastectomy they told us the cancer had spread and she had only six months left. That was in 1995. She’s 92 now.

Now, I’m not posting this looking for condolences or congratulations on what a tough battler my grandmother is. I’m posting because almost everyone around her, from her daughter (my mother), to her granddaughter (my sister) to the nurses, talks to her like she’s an infant.

To cite just one example: last week a nurse had to draw some blood for a test. My grandmother winced when the nurse pricked her finger, and the nurse said, “I sowwy! Sowwy sowwy!”

It drives me insane! This woman is an intelligent college graduate with decades-worth of life experiences. She’s not retarded and she’s not childlike in any way. It seems so wrong to treat her this way. Age and disease have taken so much from her; the least she should retain is her dignity. Why do people insist on taking even that away from her?

I’m doing some research right now on dementing illnesses, Fiver, and I can tell you that one of the themes I see popping up from time to time is that caregivers sometimes have to struggle to remember that they are dealing with an adult, even if that adult is unable to interact at an adult level, so at one level this is a pretty common problem.

That being said, all of the research I’m doing is on home care, specifically family members caring for the ill. I would have to say that my first action after what you described would have been to get that nurse somewhere out of earshot and politely explain to him/her that you feel that baby talk is inappropriate when dealing with your grandmother and that you would appreciate it in the future if it could be avoided. Health-care workers in general, from my experience, are very good about responding to constructive criticism.

One thing to remember is that the baby talk may have nothing to do with your grandmother. That may just be the way that particular nurse “soothes over” little pains like finger pricks. If it seems to be part of a pattern, though, and is not corrected after admonishment, it should be brought to the attention of the nurse’s superior. No patient should have to suffer condescension.

Best wishes.

Baby-talking to patients (of any age or cognitive ability) is something most health care facilities try to discourage. Or at least it has been in my experience (approximately 10 years in the field). Find out if there is a policy addressing this issue at your grandmother’s facility Fiver, and if not, contact the administration and tell them of your concern. A face-to-face visit with the director of nursing wouldn’t hurt either.

Good luck, and a great big pat on the back for going the extra mile for your grandmother.

My grandma’s in nursing home, too, Fiver, and while I haven’t noticed baby-talk, the tendency to treat the residents like children is obvious in other ways, and it bothers me.

The workers talk to her and the others the same way you see kindergarten teachers talking to their charges. For instance, last time I was there I gave my grandma a bracelet-- she used to give me little jewelry tidbits now and then, so I thought it would make her smile. So the nurse is leaning over saying, “Oooh, did you get a new bracelet? Isn’t it pretty? I bet you like that, huh?” and so on. This wasn’t an isolated thing, it’s just the example that springs to mind first.

What KneadToKnow says makes sense-- I think it’s pretty clear that Grandma’s caregivers don’t see her as an adult. So I know they’re not doing it on purpose. But it still doesn’t seem right.

I’m reminded of one of the last times I saw my “pseudo-grandpa” (there was a nice old couple who lived next door when I was growing up, and they soon became “Grandma” and “Grandpa”) when he was in the hospital. Grandma was there with him when I visited, and he was sitting up in the chair next to his bed. When he got tired, Grandma buzzed the nurse and said, “Mr. Diedrich is ready to get back into bed.” I’d never heard her refer to him as “Mr.” before, and I’m sure that part of her intent was to maintain the formality.

On the other hand, one of the times my mother’s mother was in the hospital, the nurses kept calling her “Lucille” even though my aunts and uncles repeatedly tiold them that her name was just “Lucy.” Arrgghhh . . .

I think it’s awful when people talk to adults like that. I work with DD adults, and that’s one of the first things we learn in training. If a person is an adult, treat them as such.

Anyway, to add my own story…
When my mom was in the hospital a couple years ago (she has kidney problems and a leaky heart valve), the nurses would walk in to take blood or whatever and say to her, “And how are we doing today?” To make it more annoying, they would use this really sing-song voice while saying it. My mom, when she wasn’t in the best mood, would reply, “Well, I don’t know about you, but I wish you people would stop sticking needles in me.” To which the nurse would laugh as though a five year old had just told their first “knock-knock” joke.


Yeah, the condescending crap that I see being dished out to the elderly is pretty depressing — especially when I consider that I plan to be old someday myself.

My Granny was not a terribly nice or admirable person, but I have to admit I admire her for one thing I saw her do. Our family went with her to church one Sunday, and when we came walking up to greet the preacher after the service, the smarmy little SOB said “Well, there’s my girlfriend! How are you doing, Miz _____?”

My Granny drew herself up to her full 4’11" and said in a haughty tone “I am a respectable widowed woman, Rev. _____. I am NOT your girlfriend.”

My grandma does the same thing to my great-grandmother, her mother-in law. And she’s only 20 years younger, so I don’t know where she gets off talking to Grandmother like she doesn’t understand what’s going on. Grandmother’s hearing and vision are shot, but the rest of her is going just fine. Hell, she broke her FEMUR about two weeks prior to her 100th birthday in March, had surgery, and is now back at the same assisted-living place she’s been at for about ten years. She gets three meals a day instead of one, but is fine. We are all very impressed with her.

I don’t know what happened when Mom wasn’t there, but I know she wouldn’t have let the nurses get away with babying Grandmother. (My mom is the family crisis-takeover-person. She’s very good at it.) You don’t have to talk down to her, just speak up. The woman is sharp as a tack. We all want to be like her when we grow up.