How to Communicate with Seniors
As our parents and grandparents age, you may find it’s harder for you to have a “joyful” conversation than you used to – maybe, you find that conversation seems to end up with yelling and headaches. We have heard a lot of complaints from our readers about how difficult it is sometimes to have a rational and peaceful conversation with their aging loved ones. But no, it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault – the aging process challenges one’s ability to think and speak, as well as maintain control of emotions. As a result, just like how your parents and grandparents taught you to speak when you were a toddler, we need to learn to communicate with them again.
So, why does learning to communicate become so important?
Resolving family conflicts
When it comes to resolving family conflicts, communication is crucial. Unresolved conflicts can cause stress for both elder parents and their children and increase the difficulty in daily interactions and the frequency of arguments. While it is nearly impossible to eliminate family conflicts, providing clear verbal and nonverbal messages and engaging in active listening can help keep the situation under control.
When it comes to making important life decisions for our senior loved ones, such as receiving long-term care or starting a new treatment, family members need to include them in their discussions. However, the process could be quite exhausting due to the discrepancies between the younger and senior family members. One typical example is when people consider sending their parents to a long-term care home, the conversation usually doesn’t go well since nobody wants to think of becoming old and losing their freedom. Usually, a successful conversation can’t be achieved without understanding and agreements from both parties, so smooth-talking becomes vital at this point – it’s not about doing what you think is good for your loved one, it is about increasing the understanding of each other’s needs so we can attain a win-win situation.
Promoting better health
Good communication has some practical effects – not just to promote healthy mental health for our loved ones. It is proven that age-friendly conversations would significantly help patients to adhere to treatment, so better medical outcomes are predicted (report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
Whether you are in a position or not where you want to make a better connection with your loved one, or you want to address life topics or important issues that involve their understanding and support, unique communication skills and strategies are often required. Below are eight great tips that CareStory provides you with to create healthy interactions with your loved one.
Note: not all these communication tips may apply to your situation. Try to understand the logic behind each and pick out the ones you think would work. Rome wasn’t built in a day; it takes time and practice to acquire good communication skills. Remember: successful communication is not about WHAT you say. It’s about HOW you say it.
Tips for communicating with your loved one
1. Choose the right environment
Preparation first! Creating a communication-friendly environment would greatly enhance the quality of the discussion. When there is a lot of disturbing noise or distracting activities, it’s hard to conduct an in-depth conversation, especially when the senior has physical or cognitive problems requiring more attention. So turn down the volume on the TV or radio, and make sure there are no distracting sounds that make you raise your voice. Seniors with dementia need to decrease additional stimulations as much as possible.
Also, face the person you’re speaking with, so they can pick up information from your facial expressions or by reading your lips. Seating is also important. Make sure your loved one is not sitting too far from you, and make sure they are sitting comfortably in a chair. When the conversation involves many family members, it’s best to put them in the middle of the group to give them a sense of the conversation that is going on around them.
2. Actively listen to your loved one
Remember that you are talking TO your family, not talking AT them. Pay attention to what your family has to say. Don’t interrupt them or try to fill awkward silences between their sentences throughout the chat. A brief silence could indicate that your family member is pondering how to respond to the topic. However, listening should go both ways, so be sure your loved one is hearing what you’re saying as well.
3. Embrace the difference
No matter how close you and your family are, no one can agree on everything all the time. Especially when it comes to decision-making, the conversation may come to a stalemate. Notably, we should agree on disagreement. Respect the viewpoints of others the same way that you would like your own to be respected. When a choice must be made, we should listen to all viewpoints and strive to compromise on the decision.
4. Speak clearly
Speak clearly and articulately. Hearing loss is common among the elderly. It is critical to talk effectively and clearly to convey your words. Make sure you speak clearly and don’t mumble or speak too hastily; instead, properly pronounce each word at a comfortable pace. Speak louder if necessary, but do not yell. For the seniors who have a cognitive impairment, try to concentrate on one idea at a time and use short, clear sentences. Avoid using slang, and describe an object or action as clearly as possible. If they still don’t understand what you’re saying, try rephrasing it or using alternative terms.
5. Demonstrate empathy
We usually perceive things through our own eyes, but we need to put ourselves in their shoes to interact with our loved ones effectively. We need to acknowledge their pain and show gratitude when they open up. When they start talking about their emotions and losses, it’s important to grab this “opened door” and be supportive of what they are saying.
6. Ask instead of assuming
Seniors need to feel respected. Try becoming an “asker” instead of being a “guesser.” Listen more to their answers before making your assumption since sometimes our assumptions are simply speculations, which will likely harm the relationship.
Don’t be afraid of asking too many questions. When talking with older adults, you can confirm their needs by constantly asking rather than ordering.
For example: instead of saying, “you haven’t had lunch, you must be hungry.” You can ask them, “Are you feeling hungry at this time? Since I noticed that you didn’t have lunch.”
7. Be careful about the language
Some terms may imply something different to seniors than to you. Some seniors are highly sensitive about the terms such as “nursing home” or “dementia.” Although you know that these are just terms we use in conversations to help our family, they might equal the loss of control and independence and trigger resistance and anger. When we use any words that address their problems, try to express them in a rather acceptable way. For example, instead of telling your parents or grandparents to get long-term care services, tell them there are professional assistants to help them gain back their control.
8. Compensating for the hearing deficit
Hearing loss is normal among seniors over 65 years old. About 25% of older adults between the ages of 65 and 75 have hearing problems, and this rate increases to 50% for individuals over 75 years old. Here are some suggestions for communicating with someone who has such problems:
Make sure the senior is wearing hearing aids.
Talk slowly and clearly without raising tones.
Face the person directly so they can read your lips.
Keep a piece of paper and a pen nearby so you can write when they can’t hear.
When about to change the subject, give clear clues.
Tips on communicating with seniors during different stages of dementia
Challenges: individuals can have meaningful conversations and engage in interactions at the early (mild) stages of dementia. However, they may repeat their sentences and sometimes won’t find the right words to describe their needs and feelings.
Solutions: Minimise distractions while the conversation is going. Look for clues that the senior provides verbally or non-verbally. Be patient, be clear on the words you are going to say, and find a gentle tone and voice to deliver your ideas.
Challenges: Most seniors are in the middle (moderate) stages of dementia, which can last for years. As the disease progresses, seniors will have difficulties understanding long sentences and reading facial expressions. They might show reduced interest in continuing a conversation. In some cases, they may lose part of their ability to finish sentences.
Solutions: Patience becomes particularly important at this point. Try to turn questions into answers and offer options if possible. It’s different from what we have mentioned above about “ask instead of assuming” since the individuals at this stage are most likely unable to provide a clear answer. Repeating on request is also necessary, given that the seniors need more time and effort to understand the information. If necessary, use body language to aid the conversation.
Challenges: Seniors with advanced dementia are incapable of comprehending most words. In certain cases, they become non-verbal.
Solutions: Making verbal conversation is nearly impossible for individuals in the late stages of dementia, but it doesn’t mean you quit communicating with them. Body languages become quite useful in information delivery. It is highly recommended to use stimulations such as smell, touch, or music to elicit their interest in engaging in an interaction.
The bottom line
Communication deserves lifelong learning. It doesn’t stop just because you are familiar with the other person. Talking to your loved one sometimes needs more skills to achieve a satisfying result for both parties – especially when the person you talk to has some degree of cognitive issues. Still, it doesn’t mean that making a smooth conversation with them is a mission impossible. Remember, making the other person comfortable in a conversation is the key to success. It may take many times of trying and lots of observation, but it’s all worth it for building a good connection with your loved one.
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