Aging affects many aspects of message production and processing. The nature of conversation changes: unlike young adults, dyads of older adults mix talk about the past with talk about the present which may help them achieve a shared sense of meaning and personal worth. Conversations with older adults are often marked by “painful self-disclosures” of bereavement, ill health, immobility, and assorted personal and family problems which may maintain “face” by contrasting personal strengths and competencies with past problems and limitations, and coping with personal losses and difficulties. Older adults tend to adopt a “not-listening,” “disapproving,” or “over-protecting” style when interacting with young adults. Older adults are perceived as more rigid and negative in their speech which may provide a reason for avoiding conversations with older adults.
However, three issues have dominated discussions of age-related differences in message production and processing: the use of elderspeak by others when communicating with older adults, the occurrence of off-target verbosity in the speech of older adults, and the frequency of word-finding problems experienced by older adults.
Elderspeak is an accommodation by others to communicating with older adults, either in response to actual communication needs of older adults or to stereotypes associated with aging. As a speech register, elderspeak is characterized by exaggerated pitch and intonation, simplified grammar, limited vocabulary, and a slow rate of delivery (Kemper et al. 1994). Like similar speech registers directed at young children, foreigners, and household pets, it conveys the assumption that the recipient is cognitively impaired. Ryan et al. (1986) argue that elderspeak contributes to the social isolation and cognitive decline of older adults. Other research has suggested elderspeak expresses a sense of disrespect and limits conversational interactions.
Hummert (1994) has shown how stereotypes of older adults contribute to the use of elderspeak. Young, middle-aged, and elderly adults hold positive and negative stereotypes of older adults. Positive stereotypes include those Hummert labels as the Perfect Grandparent, the Golden Ager, the John Wayne Conservative; negative stereotypes include the Severely Impaired, Despondent, Shrew/Curmudgeon, and Recluse. Young adults believe it is appropriate to use elderspeak when addressing older adults judged to be Severely Impaired, Despondent, and Reclusive.
Kemper and colleagues have explored the nature and use of elderspeak addressed by young adults to older adults in a laboratory setting (Kemper & Harden 1999). This research has demonstrated that elderspeak is composed of two sets of parameters. The first, which may benefit older adults, includes semantic elaborations and repetitions. The second set of correlated parameters includes modifications to fluency, prosody, and grammar; these parameters do not benefit older listeners but are perceived by older adults as patronizing. It is possible to develop a form of elderspeak that benefits older adults and is not perceived as patronizing or belittling. This beneficial form of elderspeak provides semantic elaborations by repeating or expanding instructions while avoiding off-putting changes to fluency and prosody.
Hasher and Zacks (1988) proposed that inhibitory mechanisms weaken with age, affecting older adults’ conversational skills by permitting the intrusion of irrelevant thoughts, personal preoccupations, and idiosyncratic associations. They have linked such inhibitory deficits to off-target verbosity, first noted by Pushkar Gold et al. (1988), who describe it as involving both excessive production and meandering, diffuse responses to questions. Further research has attributed off-topic verbosity to poor performance in frontal lobe functioning. Older adults who produce more off-topic speech tend to have difficulty in other inhibitory tasks, such as the Stroop task (Pushkar et al. 2000).
Burke (1997) argues that off-target verbosity arises in social settings in which older adults construe their task as monologic and thus generate a chain of internal associations. For example, when asked to reveal autobiographical information, an older adult is more likely to produce a long series of internal associations whereas a young adult may discuss a single incident. James et al. (1998) noted that speech samples collected from older adults were, indeed, more verbose than those obtained from young adults but only when they were describing personal, autobiographical topics. However, these autobiographical narratives were rated as more informative and interesting than the more focused, less verbose narratives of young adults.
Older adults report that one of the most annoying problems they face is the inability to recall a well-known word, name, or title (Burke & Shafto 2004). Word-finding problems disrupt conversations, often shifting the conversation from the topic under discussion to a focus on the older adults’ memory problems. Word-finding problems are often referred to as tip-of-the-tongue experiences (TOTs). Burke and her colleagues have provided an explanation of TOTs: the transmission-deficit hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that the mental connections between an idea, the word that stands for that idea, and how to pronounce that word can become weak as a result of aging or disuse. A TOT will result when one or more of the connections between the idea, word, and its pronunciation are broken. The speaker may have the sense that the word is on “the tip of the tongue,” perhaps being partially aware of the letter it begins with, the number of syllables, or similar sounding words.
While older adults may experience more TOTs and word-finding problems than young adults, the mechanisms appear to be the same. In a test, James and Burke (2000) induced TOT states in young and older adults by asking general knowledge questions such as “What word describes a word that reads the same both forwards and backwards?” The questions were interspersed in a list of words. Sometimes, these words shared sounds with the target word; sometimes they were unrelated to the target word. Young and older participants were more likely to produce the target word, “palindrome” after reading “palisade” than after reading unrelated words. White and Abrams (2002) report that words sharing the first syllable with a target such as “abdicate,” e.g., “abacus,” “abrogate,” are more effective at reducing word retrieval failures than words sharing other phonologically features with the target, e.g., “indigent,” “handicap,” and “duplicate.” This research suggests that one of the keys to reducing word-finding problems or resolving occurring problems is to keep talking: the target word may be cued by another word or phrase that restores broken connections between the idea, word, and its pronunciation.
These concerns, the use of elderspeak, off-target verbosity, word-finding problems, converge in the study of the effects of dementia on message production and processing. Whether arising from Alzheimer’s disease or other neuropathologies, dementia accelerates and exaggerates age-related changes to language and communication, contributing in turn to caregiver burden (Savundranayagam et al. 2005). The development of discourse-based strategies for family members and caregivers has the potential to improve care and enhance the quality of life for older adults with dementia (Dijkstra et al. 2002).
New models of aging have contributed to the emergence of new lines of research on aging and message production and processing. A growing area of investigation concerns dual task processing. Older adults appear to have more difficulty combining tasks, such as listening to one’s source of information (e.g., someone’s voice), while ignoring another (e.g., a television broadcast) (Tun et al. 2002). Indeed, even walking and talking at the same time appears to challenge older adults’ abilities to do two things at once (Kemper et al. 2003). The demands of compensating for age-associated sensory, muscular, or motor changes (such as presbycusis or sarcopenia) may over-task older adults, detracting from their ability to process or produce messages.
Another new area of investigation concerns the so-called positivity effect. In the face of shrinking time horizons, older adults may be motivated more by emotional regulation than by knowledge acquisition, preferring to attend to and remember positive information (Carstensen et al. 2003). This greater emphasis on maintaining positive well-being and avoiding negative moods may affect older adults’ discourse and social interactions, especially when their motivations conflict with young adults’ information-seeking biases.
A third emerging area is the use of technology to overcome age-related sensory and cognitive changes (Fisk et al. 2004). “Smart” hearing aids and eyeglasses can compensate for sensory losses; medical check-ups can be conducted over the Internet; older adults’ activity cycles can be monitored by motion detectors implanted in doorways and hallways; collision avoidance systems can protect older drivers; and grandparents can keep in touch with their grandchildren by text-messaging. Yet this technology also creates new problems: How to optimize the pitch and prosody of synthesized speech for older adults? Will older adults accept and trust health and medical recommendations administered by a “nurse-bot”? How can websites be designed to facilitate older adults’ search and retrieval of information?
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