Communicating with the Elderly

Article Categories: Mental Health & Patient Care

America is “going gray.” Getting older, that is. One in eight people, or 13% of the nation, is over 65 years old. The Administration on Aging (AoA) calculates by 2030, there will be twice as many older people than in 2000, over 72 million. While life expectancy has gone up, Americans continue to struggle with lifestyle-related conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Patients who visit your practice are going to reflect these demographics. They will be older, with more chronic conditions. They will likely have frequent appointments for testing and health maintenance.

Communicating with older patients requires a different style and approach than with younger clients. In order to better understand them, and to be able to relay important information, try these tips from Martin Shulman and Ellen Mandel, speech-language pathologists:

1. Know that elderly people simply require more time for communication. Even on your busiest day, you’ll need to slow down and have patience during their appointments.

2. Provide a quiet place for questions and conversation. Close the exam room door, and minimize distractions, such as hallway chatter or overhead announcements.

3. Start by talking about non-medical topics. Ask what he had for lunch, or if she is enjoying the beautiful weather. This allows patients to relax and for you to assess speech and comprehension.

4. Keep sentences and questions short to increase understanding. Speak slowly and clearly. You may need to speak loudly, as well.

5. Allow extra time for them to respond. Processing information and questions, and forming responses, are slower for the elderly. Sit tight and wait before prompting.

6. Stick to one topic at a time. If the patient is there for more than one reason, try to focus on just one or on the main concern for the visit to avoid confusion.

7. Give the patient choices, so she feels involved in the appointment. Even simple questions can be empowering. “Should I take your blood pressure or your weight first?” “Do you prefer morning or afternoon appointments?”

8. Look at them during conversations. Sitting face to face is even better. It demonstrates active listening, and you can watch for nonverbal clues about the patient. If they have hearing issues, they may benefit from watching your face or reading lips.

9. Let them reminisce. Okay, this is hard to do. You have so many things to take care of, that even a few minutes seems to throw off your schedule. But if you do have a bit of time, you can offer the gift of your attention as they share their memories.

10. Write simple instructions. Many older people are not comfortable with electronic information. They prefer old-fashioned written instructions that are easy to follow and possibly post in a place where they can see it every day.

Optimal health always relies on good communication. You will find that slowing down with elderly patients may actually save you time in the long run, because comprehension will be better. And you will enjoy the experience more, too!

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