Infantilizing our Elders

Infantilizing our Elders


Imagine that you invite the following people to a party: Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Harvey Keitel, Francis Ford Coppola, Morgan Freeman, Jack Nicholson, Anthony Hopkins, Burt Reynolds, Bob Dylan, Sophia Loren, and Brigitte Bardot.


What form of party would you offer them? What drinks would you have? What foods? What music? Imagine what they would get up to. Can you see them drinking tea, playing bingo and singing along to Kumbaya?


Hell No!


These are people who invented rock n roll. Who pioneered movie making and on screen sex. This is the same generation who landed on the moon and developed the first computers. Chances are they will want alcohol, cigarettes and maybe even drugs. They will curse and tell wicked jokes and get up to mischief and laugh a lot. They will have a great time and I, for one, would like to party with them.


So why then do we treat our elders like they are diminished adults?


Infantilizing elders comes about as a result of the deep seated beliefs we have about growing old. Here is a list of some of those assumptions. I would like to invite you to check yourself and see how many of these you may have a deep seated conviction about? I would like to make it personal though so I want you to read them out aloud and to use your own name:

  • <Your name> is sweet and kind and at peace with the world.
  • <Your name> is weak and helpless.
  • <Your name> is slow.
  • <Your name> has no interest in or capacity for sexual activity.
  • <Your name> often has complex health problems.
  • It takes extra time to explain complex topics to <Your name>.
  • <Your name> has have no interest or aptitude for technology.
  • You need to speak louder to <Your name> as he / she cannot hear that well.
  • <Your name> does not swear or tell rude jokes.
  • <Your name> has impaired cognitive ability.
  • <Your name> is out of touch with reality.


How does that feel? I guess that like me you experience these sentences as uncomfortable.


Unfortunately the way we treat our seniors reaches into the very institutions that take care of them. Residential aged care facilities provide much needed professional care that families are often ill equipped to provide. At the same time, elders also experience negative effects in institutionalized settings, such as being infantilized.


To infantilize someone means to regard and treat him or her as an infant or in a way which denies their maturity. Infantilizing is treating older people more as children than as fully functioning adults. It is a pattern of behaviour in which a person of authority (social workers, medical personnel, etc.) interacts with, responds to, or treats an elderly person as if he or she were a child. Specific examples include:

  • Speaking to elders as if they were children
  • Using baby talk when speaking to elders
  • Using exaggerated intonation, a higher pitched voice, and a child-like vocabulary
  • Speaking slowly and loudly
  • Speaking in a sing-song voice
  • Replacing second person pronouns with first-person plural pronouns (e.g., “you” becomes “we”).
  • Using overly familiar forms of address, such as pet names
  • Publicly disclosing the client’s personal and medical information
  • Using age inappropriate recreational activities
  • Child-oriented decor
  • Reprimanding elders
  • Negating privacy, autonomy, and choice of elders.


You may think this list is petty and health professionals may even consider infantilizing speech patterns as nurturing and supportive.


Let me ask you this: If you were speaking to Mick Jagger would you call him “dearie” and tell him to be a good boy, wait his turn, and you will give him a lolly? To treat elders in this way is patronizing and disrespectful. It underestimates their potential and their vitality as a human being. Infantilizing speech is a communication style that affects the recipient’s ability to form important relationships and elicit vital information. An individual, when infantilized, is overwhelmingly likely to feel disrespected and may even start behaving like the infant you believe they are. Research conducted among people on the receiving end of infantilization reveal that they become resentful and develop adaptive strategies to distance themselves from the situation. They become increasingly withdrawn and isolated.


I don’t pretend to know the answers to overcoming infantilizing elders but deep down I believe we should stop seeing them as has-beens with diminished capacity. It is patronizing and disrespectful and our seniors deserve more than that.

Follow Chris Nothling:

Aged Care Financial Adviser

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