Improving communication with the elderly.

Simple changes can positively affect communication challenges.

Denise’s father sent her an email, asking her if she would help her 82-year old mother, who suffers from dementia, pack for an upcoming trip. Glad that her father couldn’t see her shudder at the thought of engaging with her mother on a multi-step task, Denise reluctantly agreed to his request.

The thought of leading her mother through the process of choosing outfits for a trip that required several days of clothing filled Denise with dread. Any time she needed to lead either parent through a series of instructions or a to do list, frustration and anger was the result.

There are a variety of challenges related to giving instructions or multiple tasks to the elderly. Some are physical — hearing and vision loss that can scramble incoming audio and visual communications — and some are common changes in cognitive functioning as people age. But, often, simple changes in delivery can positively affect communication challenges.

  • Speak more slowly and maintain a consistent volume to allow an elderly listener to process the message at his or her pace. Be mindful of “good” or “bad” ears and speak toward the “good” ear.
  • Be aware of surrounding when speaking to the elderly. A hospital corridor or church will have more of an echo than a room with curtains and furniture. Reduce background noise by muting televisions, turning down radios or moving away from other conversations in the immediate area.
  • Reduce message clutter when communicating tasks.
  • No: “You’ll need to call the cable company to find out why you don’t have HBO. Can you do that on Monday? Be sure to call first thing in the morning so you won’t have to sit on hold for too long. I wrote the number on this pink sheet of paper and it’s under the Las Vegas magnet on the refrigerator.”
  • Yes: [As you place the phone number under the magnet] “Here’s the number to the cable company. I’ll call you Monday morning to remind you to call them.”
  • When relaying instructions, one step at a time leads to success. In Denise’s case, she could instruct her mother to choose one specific item of clothing at a time, moving to the next item only after the previous item was brought to her and packed.
  • Watch for signs that the elderly recipient received and understood your message. This requires more than a keen eye. Many seniors will assure you they understand what you said rather than admit they didn’t hear or comprehend you. Gentle probing like, “There’s a lot of noise in here, isn’t there? Are you able to hear me?” or “Can I help you pick out some shirts?” allow the listener to acknowledge challenges while maintaining his or her dignity.

Breakdowns in communication are one of the most trying aspects of inter-generational relationships. But taking the time to implement new standard operating procedures can ease the emotional pain that accompanies not understanding and not being understood.


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