July 29th, 2008

Nursing home baby talk: the goo-goo makes me gaga

I’m with Rachel Lucas on this one. Boy, am I ever.

Rachel has unearthed a study that should be nailed to the doors of every nursing home in America. It found that the widespread practice of talking to the elderly as though they were infants is not only gratingly annoying, but it seems to be counterproductive in getting them to cooperate. And this is true even when the elderly in question are senile.

This brings back unpleasant memories for me of the already-very-unpleasant time when my mother was in rehab after her stroke. I wrote back then:

There is a great deal of indignity, too, despite the fact that [my then-91-year-old mother] is in one of the best facilities of its type. Sometimes I want to shake the attendants for the condescending and infantilizing attitude they display at times, even though I understand it—and say, “How dare you? You don’t know her––she’s a person of wit and joie de vivre––everyone admires her as a great old person––two weeks ago that’s who she was––when I left for California that’s who she was.” That’s who she still is, when she puts her hearing aids in enough to hear properly, and when her anxiety goes down enough to let her personality shine through again. I hope and trust that’s who she will be more and more as time goes on and physical improvement occurs.

That was three years ago. Now my mother is in an assisted living facility where the staff isn’t immune to the babytalk virus but in general tries to be pretty cheery and fairly respectful, a feat rather difficult under the circumstances and for which I salute them. My mother is doing relatively well (knock copious pieces of wood), and is even walking much better, at the age of 94. The recent improvement I described here has not only held, but to my delight she’s gotten even stronger lately.

And yet it’s easy to revisit the memory of that dreadful time when my mother was effectively paralyzed on one side and needed help to even roll over or change position in bed, and was scared nearly out of her mind. The latter was the source of some of her odd behavior, which made her seem far more addled than she actually was, and led to the staff at the rehab facility speaking to her as though she were non compos mentis and about two years old.

I hated it, but she hated it even more. She had not lost her biting sarcasm, and regularly shot back at them with statements such as “Don’t give me that bullshit,” but it didn’t do a thing to stem the stream of pap.

The staff was also very negative in their prognostications to me. They insisted that my mother would always need twenty-four hour care (wrong: she graduated to just day care within a few months, and now gets by quite nicely with only intermittent help). They insisted she would never be able to master the all-important act of getting out of a chair and grabbing onto a walker, not because she would lack the physical skills but because she would never master the mental elements of following the sequence of correct steps: pushing off from the chair arms right before she grabbed the walker (wrong, wrong, a thousand times wrong—not only did she master the procedure in about two months, but now she can stand unassisted for a little bit).

I begged to differ with them. They didn’t know my mother; she was very intelligent but a bit dyslexic about learning things, especially complex motor skills, and always had been. But she eventually got them and became quite coordinated. For example, when I was a child, my mother continued to drive a manual shift long after automatic cars were commonplace, and her failure to change was not because she preferred the greater control a shift offered, but simply because she had anxiety about learning a new way to drive. And this had been back when she was in her forties! When she finally made the transition it was fairly easy, but after that she absolutely refused to ever drive a shift again.

They listened to me but shook their heads and said no. They were the experts, they said. They had seen countless old people rehab and they could tell that my mother was the kind of person who would never be able to learn the skills she needed. I stopped arguing with them, but I told myself that they might know old people but they didn’t know my mother.

I wasn’t altogether certain I was right, though, and their endless and needless pessimism caused me a lot of grief, although I tried never to convey it to my mother. But their continual talking down to her, the outward manifestation of their inner condescension, continued to grate mightily on both of us.

It was a glorious day when she managed to leave that place. Some are not so lucky.

8 Responses to “Nursing home baby talk: the goo-goo makes me gaga”

  1. Teresa Says:

    Ah yes. My father is currently recovering in a nursing home from a recent hospitalization. While he was in the hospital, the doctor told us he wouldn’t make it and they put him in hospice care.

    I guess the hospice method of leaving well enough alone did the trick. He was awake and confused a couple days later and then transferred to a rehab nursing home where they tell me they fully expect him to be back home in a couple of months.

    I’ve worked in nursing homes and visited people living in them – the baby talk drives me insane. I can just imagine how annoying it is to people who have the mental ability but no way to react to it. In my father’s case he’s mostly deaf – so it’s hard to ‘baby talk’ him as he can’t hear it. ;-)

  2. pst314 Says:

    “Some are not so lucky.”

    Which reminds me:

    “We have treatments for disturbed persons, Nicholas. But, at least for the time being, we have no treatment for disturbing persons.”
    –The Death of Doctor Island, by Gene Wolfe

  3. Recruiting Animal Says:

    My parents are in their 80s and while they live on their own and my dad still drives, they simply don’t seem to be as smart as they were before.

    I sometimes speak emphatically in simple talk so that they will see that I am trying to make them understand something.

    This makes them angry (like your mother got angry) but they don’t seem open to learning no matter what style of talk I use.

    When the doctor asks them what is wrong they ramble and seem to have no capacity for an analytic ordered approach to communication.

  4. Gringo Says:

    My grandmother spent the last 8 months of her life in a nursing home. Parkinson’s Disease had greatly deteriorated her speech capabilities. One time my aunt and father were visiting her at the nursing home. My grandmother said something that was, to put it mildly, difficult to understand. A patient in the adjacent bed, trying to be helpful, informed them that, “What she means to say is…..”

    “OH SHUT UP!” my grandmother replied, clear as a bell. What made this even more amazing is that my grandmother was very sweet-tempered, who would choose to say nothing instead of saying anything unpleasant.

    Do not go gently into that good night.

  5. Jimmy J. Says:

    Neo, I just read “My Stroke of Insight,” by Jill Bolte Taylor. If you have not read it, I recommend it highly. Wonderful insights into the workings of th ebrain, what happens during s troke, and the difficult process of rehabbing. A lot of wonderful tips for care-givers as well.

    A stroke scenario is very frightening for me. I’m near the age that my mother had her fatal stroke. No symptoms, no warning – one minute you’re fine and the next fighting for your life.

    I wish your mother well. What courage it takes for a senior to deal with something so devastating.

  6. Michael J. Totten Says:

    The baby talk pisses me off. My grandmother told me how insulting it was when I was ten years old. (I never talked to her like she was two.) I’ll never forget what she said, and I have never once in my life spoken to an adult in that tone of voice.

    If I make it to 90 years old and someone talks to me like that, they will be sorry, and they will stop it.

  7. Tatyana Says:

    I know at least one exception when baby-talk will be appreciated: when a grown-up is infantile, spoiled and self-centered – and demands, yes, demands a “great respect for my pain!” And I have just the example to offer.

  8. Jorrel Says:

    hello, I didn’t know where to contact you but your layout looked off on opera and internet explorer. Anyways, i just suscribd to your rss.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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