Tips for Communicating with Older Adults

Human beings are social creatures; we crave companionship and connections with others. This social need does not change with age. What does change, however, is the ability to communicate. That can present a host of challenges for seniors, their caregivers, and family members…

Unless they know some of the following tips for communicating with older adults.

Why is Communication Important for Older Adults?

There are plenty of reasons why effective communication is important for older people, the most important being:

  • Social boost – The demographic with the highest suicide rate (39.9 out of 100,000) in the United States are males over the age of 75, according to the CDC. Active communication and engagement with this age group can help alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, which may in turn boost their physical health.
  • Improving their physical well-being – Aging presents its own set of health challenges, which means doctor-patient communication is crucial in geriatric healthcare. Doctors who know how to effectively communicate with their older patients can improve geriatric patient care.

What Makes Good Communication Challenging for Older Adults?

Experts note that communication techniques and abilities change with age, often due to:

  • Changes in physical health, such as decline in hearing and vision
  • Depression
  • Cognitive decline

Alzheimer’s and Communication with Seniors

Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia present plenty of obstacles to healthy, open communication. For starters, patients with Alzheimer’s disease are at significant risk for depression, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Depression can make someone more likely to socially withdraw, which reduces the amount of time they spend socializing and communicating with others.

Additionally, all forms of dementia result in cognitive impairment. This impairment can hamper memory and stunt decision-making abilities that impact conversational skills.

Tips for Communication with Seniors

Healthcare providers, caregivers, and family members can all brush up on their communication skills to improve how they communicate with older adults.

Blue graphic listing ways to communicate with older adults (practice active listening, speak clearly and slowly, reduce background noise, and utilize hearing & visual aids)

Practice Active Listening

Some people only wait for their own turn to talk during a conversation, but that doesn’t help anyone. Instead of simply waiting to talk, people should practice active listening. The main components of active listening are:

  1. Physical attentiveness – Facing the other person and reading their body language
  2. Paraphrasing and clarifying – Restating what the other person said to clarify confusions and to show understanding; asking follow-up questions
  3. Reflecting and encouraging – Showing empathy to what the other person is feeling and finding common ground

Active listening can deepen understanding and connection between people engaging in conversation with each other, making it an important skill to learn for people frequently in contact with seniors.

Read the Other Person’s Body Language

Most people know how difficult it is to determine sarcasm over text messages, or what someone’s tone means in a phone call without seeing the speaker’s face. It all goes to show that nonverbal communication informs verbal communication.

This all means that understanding facial expressions and other types of nonverbal cues can help people better understand conversational partners. For example, when someone talks with their arms crossed over their chest, it may signal that they are getting defensive.

Make Eye Contact

Eye contact is a cornerstone of effective face-to-face communication. It engages the other person and lets them know others are actively listening to them. For those who get uncomfortable making direct eye contact, looking just above the other person’s head casts the illusion of looking directly at them.

Get Hearing Aids and Visual Aids

Older people commonly experience some form of hearing loss and vision loss. That means they not only have a harder time hearing what their conversational partners are saying, but also that they might miss out on nonverbal language cues.

Using hearing aids and visual aids can help seniors become more active participants in any conversation.

Reduce Background Noise

Reducing background noise whenever possible can make it easier for seniors to focus on what’s important: the content and context of the conversation.

Speak Clearly and Slowly

Older people may have a harder time hearing and understanding someone who mumbles or speaks rapidly. Their conversational partners should therefore make an effort to speak clearly and slowly without being patronizing.

Be Empathetic

Growing older can be a frustrating and sometimes scary process. It’s important for seniors’ loved ones to understand that and show them compassion and empathy.

Final Thoughts

Communication skills wane with age, which means it’s important for families and caregivers to take active steps to be better conversational partners for seniors. That means practicing active listening, making eye contact, and speaking clearly, for starters. What’s most important to remember is to be empathetic; everyone appreciates a kind conversational partner, after all.