Geriatric psycholinguistics has largely neglected to examine the basic psycholinguistic abilities of adults. Although rarely made explicit, traditional models of language acquisition assume that linguistic skills, once acquired, do not vary across the lifespan (cf. Clark & Clark, 1977; Menyuk, 1977; Owens, 1984; Slobin, 1981). Obler (1985) has emphasized the expansion of vocabulary and acquisition of pragmatic skills as central characteristics of adult language development. The expanded pragmatic skills of adults include the acquisition of multiple speech registers or stylistic shifts in phonology and syntax reflecting differences in audience, context, or topic. Nevertheless, age-related declines in basic linguistic skills have been found in normative studies of the many standardized tests of adult language (Albert, 1981; Borod, Goodglass, & Kaplan, 1980; Duffy, Keith, Shane, & Podraza, 1976; Emery, this volume; Gleason et al., 1980; Schuell, 1965). These norms indicate that linguistic skills deteriorate in old age in otherwise healthy and active adults.
Obler and her colleagues (1980, 1985; Obler & Albert, 1985; Gleason et al., 1980) reported that young and elderly adults responded differently when asked to tell a story about a picture; she concluded that elderly adults are more loquacious than middle-aged adults and that elderly adults' speech is more “elaborate” in that their speech is characterized by more repetition and redundancy, metalinguistic comments, and personalizations.
Other studies by Walker, Hardiman, Hedrick, and Holbrook (1981) and Emery (1985, 1986, this volume) support the conclusion that elderly adults' language skills are impaired relative to those of young adults.