Good communication is the key to maintaining a strong relationship with your older loved ones. Sometimes, speaking with seniors requires a different style of communication than speaking with younger people, and the role changes that occur during aging can affect your relationship dynamic.
Fortunately, communication is a learned skill, so talking with elderly adults can get easier with practice. If you’re not sure where to start, here are seven tips that can make communicating with seniors easier:
1. Be patient
Your conversation with a senior loved one may happen at a different pace than what you’re used to or comfortable with. Don’t rush them, though. Allow for moments of silence, and be prepared to wait a few moments while they figure out what they want to say.
Keep the conversation on one topic at a time, and avoid asking multiple questions in a row. This can be confusing for older adults. Also, use this as an opportunity to practice active listening. Don’t plan your response or follow-up questions as your loved one speaks. Instead, listen with the intention of understanding what they’re saying. Listen not just to their words, but also pay attention to their tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language to understand what they really mean.
It can be helpful to check in with them from time to time during the conversation, too. Some seniors can have a hard time following what you’re saying, so you can check their comprehension by pausing and asking for their input.
2. Ask questions
Asking an elderly adult questions is one of the most valuable ways to connect with them. Don’t make assumptions about what your senior loved one wants or needs. It’s essential that seniors maintain a sense of autonomy and independence. Unfortunately, many older adults lose this as others start to make decisions for them. Even if your loved one is facing physical health issues or cognitive decline, give them as many opportunities as possible to speak for themselves.
For example, instead of telling your family member what they’re going to have for lunch, ask them what they want. If they have trouble thinking of options, give them two or three choices. Regardless of age, everyone wants to feel heard.
Questions can be a great way to start or maintain a conversation, too. You can ask your senior relative reminiscence questions to learn more about their life experiences. Many older adults love to share stories about their lives, and asking questions shows your loved one that you want to hear what they have to say. Here are some ideas for reminiscence questions:
- Where was your favorite place you traveled to?
- What is your proudest accomplishment?
- What is your favorite hobby?
- Who were your best friends growing up?
- What was your first job?
- What advice do you have for younger people?
3. Don’t start arguments
If you and the senior are from different generations, you may not see eye-to-eye on everything. People who grew up in different eras tend to have different opinions on politics, social issues, and lifestyle choices. Even if you and your loved one disagree, try to choose your battles. You probably won’t change their lifelong opinion by arguing with them, and starting conflict can make them feel anxious or isolated.
If you disagree on an important decision, try to compromise. It may be difficult to find the middle ground, but let your loved one know that you hear them and you care about their input. Be careful with your tone of voice, word choices, and facial expressions. Even if you’re frustrated, do everything you can to stay calm and civil during the conversation.
4. Don’t condescend
Some people have a bad habit of talking down to seniors. It can be helpful to slow down your speech, talk in a deeper tone, and increase your volume if your loved one has trouble hearing or processing language. Be careful not to patronize them, though.
There’s a fine line between speaking clearly and speaking like you’re talking to a child. Slower and deeper speech is easier for seniors to understand, but you don’t have to use infantile language when you communicate with seniors. Sometimes, people speak in a higher-pitched voice when talking to aging adults, which only makes it more difficult for them to hear the words clearly.
Eye contact and face-to-face communication are important, too. If your loved one is in a wheelchair, you should sit down as well so that you’re both on the same level. When you tower over someone in a wheelchair, they may feel looked down upon or invisible. Sit next to them and maintain eye contact while you speak.
5. Use “I” statements
This is a helpful technique for effective communication with people of all ages, not just with seniors. People tend to feel attacked when others use “you” statements. For example, if someone says, “You have to go to bed early,” you may feel like you’re being bossed around. If someone says, “You always forget to schedule your doctor’s appointments,” you may feel like you’re being unfairly labeled.
If you mostly use “you” statements when speaking with a senior, they may respond by withdrawing or becoming defensive. To maintain a healthy relationship while conveying the same message, try to change “you” statements to “I” statements. For example, you could say, “I think it’s important to get to bed early tonight,” or, “I’ll help you remember to schedule your appointments.” With this style of communication, you can place emphasis on the team effort and avoid controlling or criticizing your loved one.
6. Reduce distractions
Seniors tend to be more sensitive to sounds than younger adults, so background noise can make communicating with aging adults difficult. If your older loved one has trouble hearing, extra noise can make it even harder for them to understand your words. If they’re facing cognitive decline, too much stimuli can be distressing.
Turn off the TV, radio, or other noisy devices when you speak with your senior relative. Try to reduce visual distractions as well. Face your loved one while you speak so that they can watch your lips move and see your non-verbal expressions. Speaking face-to-face is usually easier than speaking over the phone because they can hear you more clearly. When you need to have a serious conversation, do so at home where you have more control over the environment and potential distractions.
No one is too old for humor. While it’s important to respect your senior relatives, laughing and joking with them can strengthen your bond and bring joy to their day. Seniors are less likely than younger people to enjoy aggressive humor that mocks others, but they tend to prefer self-enhancing humor, which involves seeing the funny side of stressful situations.
If your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline or problems with language processing, they may not understand lengthy, complicated jokes. Short and straightforward jokes can be a great way to ease tension, though, as long as you’re not laughing at their expense.
Conversation is important for seniors to maintain their cognitive health and quality of life. Everyone is different, so you may have to adjust your approach and style based on the senior’s personality. Most importantly, make sure you give your loved ones space to talk and listen actively to what they have to say.
If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, consider speaking with a therapist. Counseling is a great way to enhance your mental and emotional well-being and practice your communication skills.
By Melanie Donohue, Licensed Clinical Social Worker