How to Communicate Effectively with Older Adults
We live in a society where the post-World War II Baby Boomer Generation (born 1946-1964) is reaching their senior years in ever-growing numbers, and representing an increasingly larger segment of the population. Higher standards of living and medical advancements are extending life expectancies in many countries to well above the age of eighty.
Caring for, and having successful relationships with older adults often requires unique communication skills and strategies. Below are a five tips for successful communication with seniors. Not all of these ideas may apply to your particular situation or the older adult(s) involved. Simply use what works and discard the rest. These ideas also presume that the relationship with the senior is relatively positive, and that the senior is relatively cooperative. For tips on successful communication with difficult seniors, see my book: “How to Effectively Communicate with Seniors.”
1. Exercise Patience and Compassion
It goes without saying that patience and compassion are often needed when dealing with the elderly. Physical challenges, slow movement, forgetfulness, neediness, and apathy are just some of the behaviors you might encounter. Sometimes it’s easy to lose patience and become frustrated. One might even be tempted to give up and walk away.
During these moments, it’s very helpful to put yourself in the senior’s shoes, even for just a moment. Consider the older adult you’re dealing with, and complete the sentence: “It must not be easy…,” or “It must be hard….” For example:
“She’s being so apathetic. It must not be easy to live without her friends around.”
“He does everything so slowly. It must be hard to deal with arthritis every day.”
Having empathy for the older adult is an effective way to generate more patience and compassion. If, despite your best efforts, your patience still runs thin, take a time out from the older adult if possible. Come back when you’re in a calmer state of mind.
2. Ask Instead of Order
As mentioned in an earlier section, one of the core needs of many seniors is to feel relevant and respected. You can help validate these needs by frequently asking instead of ordering when communicating with the older adult. For example:
Instead of: “You’re having soup for lunch today.”
Say: “Would you like to have some soup for lunch?” or
“We’re having soup for lunch today, okay?”
Better yet, offer options: “Would you like to have soup or salad for lunch today?”
Asking questions offers the senior a greater sense of respect and regard. Offering options gives her or him a greater sense of control of the immediate environment.
With less cognizant and physically able seniors, ask and follow up without necessarily waiting for an answer. Let them feel they’re part of the decision making process, and have a degree of control over some aspects of their lives
3. Ask Instead of Assume
Similarly, ask questions instead of making assumptions when it comes to your actions in relations to the older adult. For example, instead of turning the lights off in the senior’s room without asking, say “I’m going to turn off the lights for you, okay?” If the senior protests, let her have her way if it’s harmless, or explain why it’s important for you to do what you need to do (in most cases for the sake of senior’s health and well-being).
4. Use “I” instead of “You” Language
We know from the study of effective communication that people (including many older adults) generally don’t respond well when they feel like they’re constantly being ordered what to do. Such “bossy” language is often manifested in the use of “you” statements, followed by a directive. For example:
“You must exercise today!”
“You have to take your medicine!”
“You should to air out your room!”
“You need to finish your soup!”
“You better not miss the doctor’s appointment!”
When people feel like they’re being bossed around on a regular basis, they’re more likely going to respond with what psychologists call the “Three F’s – Fight, Flight, and Freeze”, leading to behavioral problems such as argument, avoidance, or stonewalling.
Instead, use statements which begin with “I,” “It,” “We,” “Let’s,” and “This,” to convey messages. For example:
“I will help you exercise today.”
“It’s important to take your medicine.”
“We need to get some fresh air into the room.”
“Let’s finish your soup, okay?”
“This doctor’s appointment is very important.”
These types of statements compel the older adult to be more open to what you have to say, encourage listening, and reduce the possibility of Fight, Flight, or Freeze responses.
5. Offer Choices Whenever Possible
Many older adults desire to maintain a sense of independence. This may be especially important when seniors feel their physical and cognitive limitations, but still desire ways to maintain some level of local control in their lives.
Whenever possible and appropriate, offer an older adult choices when interacting with her or him. This can be something as simple as asking whether the senior would like to have choice A or choice B for lunch. Having the ability to exercise choice can provide the older adult a greater sense of confidence, esteem, and security, as the senior feels the power to be proactive in life.