Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Now You’re Talking: How to Communicate with Seniors

We all want to be heard – to be acknowledged and understood. This is true for people regardless of age, and certainly applies to seniors. Yet when it comes to speaking with older people, we sometimes go about it the wrong way.

“Part of the problem stems from the loss of the communal society of our grandparents and great-grandparents, where old adults were part of the matrix of life ... All this has left us unfamiliar and unschooled in how older adults think and communicate,” says David Solie, MS, in an article entitled, “The 7 Common Mistakes Professionals Make Communicating with Seniors.”

However, there are ways to improve our communication with elders. They include recognizing physical needs, modifying our communication style and gaining an understanding of psychological issues.

Physical Factors
Devorah Small-Teyer, M.S.W., Director of Social Services for the Los Angeles Jewish Home’s Joyce Eisenberg-Keifer Medical Center, notes that simply accommodating hearing or sight issues can enhance conversation.

“Sometimes a hearing aide battery needs to replaced or amplified ear phones need to be provided,” she says. “It’s important to approach someone with hearing or vision problems from the front, speak to them face-to-face, and use hand gestures when appropriate. Make eye contact, put on a smile and address them respectfully by name to get their attention.”

Small-Teyer offers several more helpful strategies:
  • Be patient. Don’t rush or force the conversation.
  • Try not to finish others’ sentences. Give people time to form their responses
  • Speak slowly, clearly and at a reasonable volume. Don’t mumble, but don’t shout, either.
  • Try to minimize distractions, such as a television playing in the room, while conversing.
We may also make the false assumption that a slow response indicates a slow mind, but that is not necessarily the case. Increased processing time does not reflect a decline in reasoning skills or verbal ability.

Common Courtesies
In the age of multi-tasking, many of us may be tempted to check our phones for text messages or emails during a conversation. But this can feel disrespectful to the person we’re talking to. Seniors who don’t use this technology are especially likely to infer that we aren’t really interested in what they have to say.

Good communicators go beyond just understanding the information being conveyed. They also understand how the speaker feels about what he or she is saying. Try to repeat what the speaker has said, using your own words. And when it’s your turn to speak, communicate in a way the listener can understand.

Avoid “elderspeak,” the patronizing way of talking to seniors that sounds like baby talk. While it may seem like a way to show affection and encouragement, it feels condescending and infantilizing to the recipient. In fact, research shows that elderspeak can actually interfere with communication and foster contention rather than cooperation.

What’s Really Going On
David Solie, who wrote the article on seven communication mistakes, is also the author of How to Say It to Seniors, Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders. He posits that seniors have unique developmental agendas. Just as toddlers and teens must work to develop identity and independence, Solie argues, seniors also have developmental needs. The mission of older adults, he says, is to maintain control over their lives in the face of loss and to discover their legacy – what will live on after them.

Solie believes this explains some of the communication styles we tend to negatively associate with the elderly, such as wandering from subject to subject, repeating stories, postponing decisions, or going on tangents.

“Such verbal behavior can be frustrating to us, because we haven’t learned to appreciate the tasks on their agendas,” he writes. “After all, we’re at the top of our game. We need to … cross off as many items as possible every single day. That process makes the middle aged feel powerful and in control… But elderly people have different motivators.”

We always run the risk of miscommunicating. But using patience, courtesy and clarity – regardless of the age of our audience -- will greatly increase the chance for success.

Nancy Sokoler Steiner Nancy Sokoler Steiner is a freelance writer and author based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Lifestyles Magazine, among other publications.

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