Communicating Better With Older People

Communicating with older people often requires extra time and patience because of physical, psychological, and social changes of normal aging.

Even more effort is needed in nursing homes where 60% to 90% of residents may actually have communication disabilities.

Speech-language pathologists Martin Shulman and Ellen Mandel offer these tips for family members and caregivers to make communicating with older people easier:

  • Reduce background noises that may be distracting (e.g., turn off the radio or TV, close the door, or move to a quieter place)
  • Begin the conversation with casual topics (e.g., the weather or what the person had for lunch). Avoid crucial messages at the beginning.
  • Talk about familiar subjects such as family members and special interests of the person
  • Stick to a topic. Avoid quick shifts from topic to topic.
  • Keep sentences and questions short.
  • Give older persons a moment to reminisce. Their memories are important to them.
  • Allow extra time for responding. Don’t hurry them.
  • Give the older person choices to ease decision making. (e.g., “Do you want tea or coffee?” rather than “What do you want to drink?”)
  • Be an active listener. Look for hints from eye gaze and gestures. Take a guess (e.g., “Are you talking about the TV news? Yes? Tell me more. I didn’t see it.”)

After your visit, tell others who visit (relatives, physicians, nurses, aides, etc.) what you’ve learned to improve communicating with the older person.

If you have concerns about a loved one’s ability to communicate, visit ASHA’s Find a Professional for help.

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