In relationships, good communication is key. It helps establish trust and allows us to understand each other’s feelings, thoughts and needs. As caregivers, we know that it is sometimes difficult to communicate with our elderly clients or family members. Sensory losses (vision and/or hearing), dementia, and other age-related health problems can get in the way. When an older adult has difficulty expressing a thought or need, or can’t hear or understand others, it can be frustrating and painful for them. It can also make them angry. This can worsen communication problems and lead the elderly to withdraw. However, there are techniques you can try which can help make communication easier.

On Nov. 16, 2014, the journal Psychology Today published an online article that offered ideas to improve communication with our elders. In How to Communicate Effectively with Older Adults the author, Preston Ni, suggests these strategies:

Be patient and show compassion

When an elderly person has difficulty communicating or appears angry or frustrated try imagining yourself in their position. Remember that they were not always this way. As the brain ages, the thinking process slows, and it can take longer to come up with a response. Tell them to take their time and let them know you will wait.

Ask instead of tell

Let your senior know they are respected. You can do this by putting what you say in the form of a question, rather than a statement. For example, instead of saying “You’re having soup for lunch”  try saying “Would you like to have soup for lunch?” or “We’re having soup for lunch, okay?” This lets the person know that their opinion matters.

Ask instead of assume

You can help an elderly individual feel valued when you ask before taking action. Instead of turning the lights off without asking, ask “Would you like me to turn off the lights?” This allows the other person to feel part of the decision making.

Don’t start sentences with “you” 

Studies of communication styles show that people don’t like being told what to do. “Bossy” language often starts with the word “you,” followed by an instruction.

  • “You have to take your medicine.”
  • “You need a bath.”
  • “You should hurry up.”

Instead, use words which begin with “I, it, we, let’s, and this”

According to the Psychology Today article, “When people feel like they’re being bossed around, they’re more likely to exhibit behavioral problems or engage in argument or avoidance. Instead, begin your sentences with I, it, we, lets, and this.

  • “It’s important to take your medicine.”
  • “This would be a great time for your bath, okay?”
  • “We don’t want to be late for your appointment. Are you ready to leave?”

Offer choices whenever possible

To help others feel they have some control in their lives, give them choices. For example, ask whether they would like to have a ham or a turkey sandwich, or if they would prefer the room to stay quiet or if they want to listen to music. When the older adult is invited to take part in the decisions that impact their life, their confidence and comfort will grow.

There are many other common communication techniques that still bear repeating. The following are described on the elizz website in: 13 ways to improve your caregiver communication skills:

  • Pay attention to nonverbal communication.
  • To be sure you understand, repeat back what the other person said.
  • Make sure you have the older person’s attention before speaking.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Help the person focus on what they can, rather than cannot, do.

When you do your best to communicate well, your client or family member will feel your caring, and, in the best of circumstances, frustration will be reduced, and cooperation increased. By paying attention to the way you say things, and by remembering to take the time to really listen, your client or family member’s experience, as well as your own, will be enhanced. This is when caregiving – and you – are at your very best.