Willie Nelson is 85.

This is scary, or awesome, depending on your feelings about the latter-day outlaw.

Nelson has spawned his share of legends, not least among them the notion that he’s toured so much that everyone from backstage hangers-on to pizza delivery boys has had the chance to meet him.

If you got the chance, what would you say? Would you ask him about writing “On the Road Again” on the back of an airline barf bag? Would you tell him that “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” always makes you cry?

Or something like this: “Oooh, Mr. Nelson, let’s be careful with our coffee now, sweetie. Is that hot? Is it HOTTT?”

Now imagine Willie punching you in the face.

A lot of people are aging in America these days. This year, U.S. Census Bureau data showed that within the next two decades adults 65 years and older will outnumber children. Which means that we all had better learn how to talk to our elders.

For years, scientists who study the way we age in Western societies have noticed the proliferation of “elderspeak,” the widespread tendency to talk to the elderly in a way that mimics the sugary tones some people use on small children or pets.

“It sounds like baby talk, like simplified speech,” says Anna Corwin, an anthropologist and professor at St. Mary’s College of California.

There are several specific characteristics that define elderspeak:

• A slow speech rate.

• Exaggerated intonation.

• Elevated pitch (raising your voice as if everything is a question).

• Elevated volume.

• A simplified vocabulary.

• Reduced grammatical complexity.

• Using diminutives, like “dear” or “sweetie.”

• Using the collective pronoun “we.”

• Lots of repetition.

It’s easy to picture well-intentioned family and caregivers talking to elderly people this way.

It’s also easy to imagine why the elderly wouldn’t like it.

Harmful effects

Research shows the issue goes beyond preference. A 2008 study showed that dementia patients become more agitated and resistant to care when spoken to in this manner. And, Corwin points out, “it can cause experiences of lower self-esteem, but it also correlates with reduced cognitive ability, so it’s a real problem.”

Dementia patients, in particular, are often subject to elderspeak, and dementia cases are rising along with the aging population. According to Alzheimer’s Association data, more than 16 million Americans are currently providing care for a person with dementia. Recently, the largest ever National Institutes of Health budget increase for dementia research — $425 million — was signed into law, a move that recognizes it as a burgeoning public health crisis.

Reducing elderspeak is one of the most basic ways society can address dementia. Like baby talk, elderspeak uses speech patterns that indicate our perception that a person is less than productive, is somehow dependent.

“Americans tend to view and treat older adults as no longer productive in society,” says Corwin. “And that’s how we define personhood, as an adult who is a productive member of society.”

Such speech patterns also come into play with people we believe are impaired in their communication, either through hearing loss or a lack of ability to speak or form words.

“If people are not actually able to produce words, it becomes difficult to hold conversations,” says Corwin, “because they can’t respond to you in typical ways.”

However, her research on Catholic nuns (known for their longevity) showed that nuns did not revert to elderspeak, even with patients who could no longer communicate effectively.

“Even in these cases where people had limited ability to engage, they were not using elderspeak and were using grammatically, linguistically complex interactions.”

Better than elderspeak

As a result, Corwin was able to pinpoint three types of communication that are more effective than elderspeak, even with dementia patients.

The first was storytelling: “The nuns would just come in and tell stories,” says Corwin. “They were able to use grammatically rich speech, and you can pause, and the person can contribute what they remember, but they’re not required to. Even if they remain silent, you can just resume the story.”

Humor, she says, is also effective. “Jokes worked the same way. People would come in and tell jokes and laugh together.”

The third type of communication that Corwin found effective was the most intriguing, she says.

“They would have people who couldn’t communicate, they would give them blessings, and then the person might be silent, or mumble, and at the end they would say amen, because all that mattered is they believed that God had heard. Honestly, it was beautiful to watch, to witness.”

Though the religious community of nuns is unique, their tactics, Corwin says, can be universal.

“If people pray, saying prayers together can be a really beautiful thing. But for people who are secular, just telling stories together works. This is what the nuns were doing. It didn’t require training or anything special, just finding ways to have that rich communication. It’s not that hard to do.”

But it is crucial, she says.

“Avoiding elderspeak, just speaking to older people the way we speak to any adult, is really important. It’s important not to underestimate how powerful that is.”

Corwin hopes that awareness around the issue might one day contribute to changes in our societal view of aging and decline.

In the meantime, it might help you avoid a black eye from the next 85-year-old you talk down to.