Effective Communication With Elders

Written by sandra bienkowski
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Effective Communication With Elders
Be empathetic when communicating with the elderly. (elderly men enjoying life during pension image by L. Shat from Fotolia.com)

By 2030 the number of Americans over age 65 will more than double, from 34.8 million in 2000 to 70.3 million in 2030, according to Experience Corps, a national program that provides community opportunities for retired people. With the number of older Americans growing, you can learn how to effectively communicate with seniors--a skill you are likely to use.

Notice Changes

Emotional, cognitive and physical changes are all a part of ageing. Increase your awareness when you are around an elderly person so you can sense when changes occur. Many changes can impact communication such as hearing loss, vision impairment or isolating behaviour, a sign of depression. If you sense an elderly person in your life is experiencing a change, address it directly, but treat that person as an adult. Instead of saying, "I think you have a hearing problem," suggest scheduling an appointment with their doctor. Doctor's appointments are beneficial if you think an elderly person struggles with depression or any other changes. Although depression in the elderly is common, sometimes it is situational, so encourage that person to participate in activities they once enjoyed, plan an outing, volunteer, or connect to a community group with people of the same age.

Be Empathic

Don't expect elderly people to communicate with you in the same way they always have. If you are communicating with a senior who is experiencing cognitive changes such as dementia, the manner in which they communicate with you could change. An elderly person may repeat stories or could be irritable when they weren't that way in the past. Be empathetic. Realise the person before you is still the same person, but may act differently because of physical changes beyond their control. Don't react negatively to the new way an elderly person may act. Be patient and communicate as you normally would.

Be Respectful

Age is a sign of respect in other countries much more than it is in the United States. Understand that seniors have led full lives and deserve your respect. Don't tell them what to do or how to feel and don't speak to them as if they are children. Converse with elderly people just as you would any other adult. And, don't think their lives are any less relevant that yours. Make sure you don't just fill them in on your life as if their life is already over. It isn't. Ask them to talk about themselves, too.

Communication Style

When you are communicating with elderly people, understand that they are from a different generation and may not communicate in the same way that you do. Turn off your beeping cell phone or Blackberry and don't text someone else during a conversation with elderly people. This is a good tip for any conversation. Communicate with the elderly in the same manner in which they communicate with you. If they call you, call them back. Don't send an e-mail instead. If they write you a letter that arrives in the mail via the U.S. Postal system, take the time to write a letter back. It's respectful and it shows appreciation for their preferred method of communication.


There is a lot we can learn from seniors. They have had more experiences than younger adults and have more stories and wisdom to share. Ask to hear their stories. Find out the differences in the world today versus when they were growing up. Find out what life lessons or wisdom they want to impart and the legacy they'd like to leave the world.

If you would like to record the stories of an elderly person in your life, visit storycorps.org. StoryCorps preserves stories by inviting people to interview relatives or friends and keep a recorded CD. The interviews are stored at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. According to StoryCorps, it's one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, and it's an amazing way to pay tribute to an elderly person in your life.

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