Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Keeping The Conversation Going: How To Communicate With Seniors

According to the Gerontological Society of America (GSA), it's estimated that by 2030 nearly one out of every five Americans will be 65 years of age or older. Social workers are aware of the fact that interactions between seniors and healthcare professionals can be influenced by expectations and stereotypes on both sides. Understanding communication means being sensitive to possible deficiencies related to the aging process. These changes might include the fact that an elderly individual may process information more slowly, have decreased hearing or vision, or exhibit a decline in memory. Seniors may be dealing with adjustments they are making related to losses, including retirement, health, independence, memory, and loss of loved ones. Effective communication with seniors can be challenging, but it's essential in order to understand and meet their needs.

First meetings with newcomers to the Jewish Home's services and programs have taught us the importance of not stereotyping an individual based on their physical appearance or immediate reaction to a new environment or situation. It's important to avoid relying solely on perceptual cues to guide the interaction. We must first engage in a simple welcoming dialogue in order to assess the individual's cognitive capacity, hearing ability and emotional well-being. The social worker learns to adapt their style of communication to the abilities of the individual. Doing this provides a foundation for more effective interactions in the future.

The same communication skills employed by a social worker or other geriatric healthcare professional can be easily incorporated into our personal interactions with seniors. Here are ten simple tips from the GSA and the Home's social services department to help improve your communication with the seniors in your life.
  • Don't use "baby talk." Instead, call individuals by their proper name unless given permission to do otherwise. Baby talk and names like "honey" or "sweetie" aredisrespectful and can make a person feel powerless.
  • Have conversations in a quiet environment to minimize background noise.
  • Face the individual directly at eye level and speak clearly and distinctly. Use short, concise sentences to share information. Use words that are concrete and direct, rather than abstract or vague. Simplify information.
  • Take the time to make a connection and build rapport before initiating the task at hand. Ask open-ended questions that give the individual the opportunity to share their point of view instead of yes and no answers.
  • Listen. Focus on the individual and maintain eye contact. If there is any question as to what is being said, paraphrase what was shared in order to clarify the meaning. This conveys the message that you are really listening. Remember to also verify the listener's comprehension.
  • Convey genuine interest in the person's response by reflecting back what you hearthey are feeling. For example, if positive information about an event was shared, say "It sounds like that made you very happy."
  • Be personable but remember to use humor with discretion.
  • Include the elder in conversations, even if you're addressing the caregiver or family member. Direct the conversation back to the resident.
  • Provide elders with complete and impartial information about the pros and cons associated with care and offer choices whenever possible.
  • Elders with dementia often respond to your tone of communication more than your words. Use a soft, calm voice. Be aware of your non-verbal communication, such as facial expressions and gestures. Don't reduce your rate of speech. Be clear and enunciate. Use closed-ended questions that require only a yes or no answer. Simplify your sentences.
Considering the unique abilities and challenges of every senior will help create positive, effective interactions and help to enhance relationships, whether at home or in a healthcare setting.

Devorah Small-Teyer, MSW, is the director of social services for the Los Angeles Jewish Home's Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Medical Center. Ms. Small-Teyer received her BA from Southern Connecticut State University. She went on to receive her MSW from Yeshiva University, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and studied at the Gestalt Institute for Psychotherapy and Training, both in New York City.