Communicating with Elder Clients

Over 40 million people in the US are 65 or over and that number is expected to increase to more than 88 million by 2050. Older residents, or those 85 and over, will top 9 million by 2030. As the population grows older and nursing homes and assisted living facilities continue to fill up, the subject of how health care professionals, social workers, and elder law lawyers can communicate effectively with elderly individuals becomes paramount.

Communication with elders can be difficult. Many are slowed by progressive disabilities affecting cognitive skills such as information processing and comprehension as well as hearing and speech. Knowing the feelings and wishes of elders and treating them with respect and dignity are essential in preventing or dealing with depression and their more immediate needs. Dementia can be found in persons in their 50s but the percentage increases with age. Other persons in various stages of dementia or who are no longer able to perform daily living activities are residing in assisted living and nursing home facilities and require consistent or even constant attention with bathing, dressing, eating, toileting and medical care.

Effective Communication and Quality of Life

Research has shown that effective communication can reduce the incidence of dependence, depression, bad behavior and lack of cooperation by elders. Health care providers, who regularly come into contact with elderly patients, can help improve the lives of senior citizens by knowing how to talk to and listen to their patients. Nursing home staff upon whom elderly patients rely for 75% of their communication opportunities and for much of their care, can also contribute to a resident’s quality of life and feel better about themselves and their work by listening to and talking with residents in friendly and productive ways. Unfortunately, many nursing home facilities suffer from staff shortages so communication with residents often centers on their immediate needs and care tasks while ignoring the vital human or personal element that a warmer and more engaging conversation can bring.

Characteristics that can inhibit effective communication include:

  • – Loss of hearing
  • – Soft speech
  • – Insecurity
  • – Fatigue
  • – Short term memory loss
  • – Background and values of the patient

Any of these factors can frustrate the person trying to talk to an elderly client or patient and prevent the message or information from being conveyed to the patient or client and perhaps inhibit future attempts.

Tips on Communicating with Elderly Clients and Patients

Family members, Physicians, and other professionals, including elder law lawyers need to be able to communicate with their elderly person. Tips on how they can efficiently communicate with seniors who have certain impairments are relevant to anyone who wishes to engage in meaningful discussion with a person suffering from age-related disabilities:

  1. 1.  Patience–plan on spending a certain amount of time with an elderly person. Older persons often need more time to fully comprehend the information you are trying to convey. You may have to explain things more than once or in different ways to ensure the person understands what you are saying.
  2. 2.  Avoid or minimize distractions. If you are on the phone or carrying on a conversation with someone else, the elderly person may become frustrated with you and stop listening. Also, find a quiet location and be sure the individual is comfortable.
  3. 3.  Greet the person warmly and ask about their family and friends. Compliment them on how they look.
  4. 4.  Keep eye contact. Many seniors have trouble hearing or seeing. If they see that you are paying attention to them, they are more apt to be forthcoming with concerns and more comfortable with you so that you may receive information that you were not aware was troubling them.
  5. 5.  Listen and do not interrupt. Even if the senior has trouble speaking or getting a point across, give them the opportunity to express him or herself. Most people just want to have someone who will listen to them.
  6. 6.  Simplify your language and use shorter sentences. Because many seniors have poor hearing or short attention spans, use simpler language and speak more slowly and perhaps a bit louder. Be careful not to offend the person with your tone or language.
  7. 7.  Know the person’s background and values. Seniors come from different parts of the country or from other countries where their politics and world views are often different if not at odds with your own. Do not insult your elder or engage in arguments unless it is good natured and the senior appreciates a robust discussion.
  8. 8.  Avoid terms or expressions of intimate familiarity.
  9. 9.  Do not ask closed questions or use the term “we;” for example, “are we ready for our medicine.?” It is demeaning and disrespectful. Instead, you can ask the person if she or he needs help with something specific.
  10. 10.  Treat the person with dignity and respect. A listener who is interested in what a person has to say, is patient and knows the senior’s interests and limitations will often find a resident or client who appreciates you and will be more communicative and at ease.

For attorneys who practice elder law as well as other professionals, they need to be able to discuss estate planning as well as insurance and financial matters with their aging clients so that their needs and goals are adequately met.

Patricia Bloom-McDonald is an elder law lawyer who has been representing the interests of seniors for over 25 years. Her dedication to elder law and in providing essential advice and representation to her elderly clients and their families in the areas of estate planning, probate, real estate, and Medicare has earned her the trust of clients in Canton, Westport and throughout the surrounding communities.

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