Communication Skills with Seniors
February 28, 2019
Improving communication skills is good for all of us who are involved with seniors, and for the seniors themselves. While much as been written about communications skills in general, this particular topic isn’t addressed as often. Some of the most common statements made by senior citizens about communication issues are:
- Please don’t yell at me, just talk a little louder and don’t mumble.
- Please don’t call me Sweetie, Sweetie Pie, Young Lady, Young Man, or any other child-like name.
- Please don’t say things that make it sound like I am about to die.
Let’s look at the three components above:
- The physical act of communication can be a barrier to a good conversation, especially for those with a hearing loss.
Per the Gerontological Society of America’s(GSA) CEO, James Appleby, “two-thirds of adults 70 and over have a hearing loss that affects their daily conversation…. Leading to isolation, depression.” Hearing loss, however, doesn’t mean yelling is the solution.
In addition to hearing aids, there are strategies to enhance communication with someone with even a slight hearing loss. A Cleveland Clinic guide to improving communications suggests the following:
- Gain attention: saying the person’s name, or giving a light touch to let the person know you are there.
- Maintain eye contact: facial expressions and body language are critical pieces of conversations.
- Avoid covering mouth: Most listeners make use of lip-reading. Covering your mouth and chewing make that difficult.
- Speak naturally: shouting is not helpful, nor is mumbling. Speak distinctly and at a normal rate. Pausing may help the person process the speech.
- Avoid background noise: turn off the TV or the radio.
One final note on the physical act of conversation, remember to talk TO the person directly. A pet peeve of seniors is hearing a visitor ask someone else “how is he or she doing”… as if the person cannot hear. Another pet phrase that is annoying, “how are WE doing.” These phrases make the person feel non-existent, versus “how are YOU doing” which makes them feel valued.
- The tone of communication can be another barrier to conversation.
Would you like to be addressed in a way that sounds patronizing, or as if you were a small, cute child? Probably not. You want to be addressed as an intelligent partner in a conversation. Seniors want to be treated the same way. Calling a senior ‘sweetie’ implies you think that person is ‘cute’ which indicates a lack of respect for the person.
Taking this a step further, the GSA has a guide to communicating with older adults, which encourages us to use the same vocabulary we use with other adults. The report says “as a general rule, older adults maintain their existing vocabulary or continue to improve it. They have no greater problem understanding complicated words than do members of other age groups, so there is no need to simplify the words you use.”
- Finally, let’s discuss the conversation itself. Sometimes we are uncomfortable with talking to seniors, as we don’t think we have much in common.
Some thoughts to consider:
- Seniors do not feel their age the way you may think they would. Let’s say you are 40, it is probably safe to say you still feel like you are 25 in your head. Seniors feel the same. A 75-year-old probably feels like a 40-year-old inside. Your conversation can and should be just like when you talk to any adult. Talk about current events, recent sports stories, etc. You ask questions, but you also let them know about you.
- Seniors do not approach each day as one more day before they die, it’s just today. Don’t ask questions or talk so it sounds like you are writing their obituary or ‘taking stock’ of their life. As an example, “what do you wish you had done by now and haven’t” might be a good employment interview question, but to a senior, it can sound like you are trying to assess their lifetime value.
So, what are good conversation starters? Here are some ideas.
- What is your favorite food, and has that always been your favorite?
- Do you have a favorite holiday? Why that one?
- Do you like to read? What type of reading (books, magazines)? Prefer printed materials, online, or audio?
- How did you meet your wife/husband?
- Have you traveled much? Where?
- Have you always lived in this location? Where else?
- When you were a child, what did you do for fun? Any sports?
- Do you have a favorite movie? TV show? From now, or earlier.
- Did you work, and if so, what was your favorite job?
- What technology do you like? Or what do you wish was never invented?
- Do you have a favorite College/University? Did you attend there?
- I am struggling to decide XXX, have you experienced that?
- Do you have any hobbies, or some you used to have, or some you would like to start?