In my research career, I identified the use of baby-talk with frail older adults (Elder Speak), perhaps intended to be nurturing but with the consequence of diminishing the confidence and competence of recipients. In addition to the high-pitched, simplified baby-talk, ageist stereotypes lead people to communicate poorly with older adults: ignoring an older adult in the company of younger folks, dismissing comments of older adults, treating complaints about treatment or circumstances as ‘nothing but the expected.’
Research also shows that older adults can combat such stereotypic communication by responding carefully in an assertive manner. That is, responding after a pause with a calm, confident manner that is neither overly passive nor aggressive. Often, one can get the point across through body language – straight not stiff posture, open hand gestures, steady eye contact, and a small smile. For example, if your mother is being ignored by a health professional who directs their speech to you instead of to her, the client, you can gesture toward your mother in silence. It is important to choose words that describe your situation and your request without any hint of impatient, angry feelings. For example, if you are being ignored by a sales person after a long wait, you can say in a steady way, “I have been here 20 minutes while others coming after me are served. I will wait three more minutes for service before taking my business elsewhere.”
Assertive behavior includes expressing feelings, needs, ideas, and rights in ways that don’t violate the rights of others. Assertive behavior is usually honest, direct, expressive, spontaneous, and self-enhancing. The spontaneous aspect initially depends on practicing skills.
To avoid patronizing older adults, especially those with memory or communication impairments, it is useful to focus on listening to the person and observing their body language. Often, this focus on the other leads us to respond effectively in a helpful, affirming way.