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  • Aging in Place

Communicating with Older Adults, Dos and Don'ts

older adult conversationHow we speak to one another is a sign of respect – and the way we communicate with older adults should be no different. When talking with seniors, it’s important to think about both what you say, and how you say it.

Here are some things to remember next time you start a conversation with an older adult:

Don’t …
  • Don’t use cutesy pet names. You may mean well when you use pet names like “sweetie” or “honey” when talking to an older adult, but those words can feel like you’re talking down to them. Descriptive words like “cute” or “adorable” are also condescending. Older adults are adults, not children, so be sure to treat them as such.
  • Don’t be impatient. Understand that communication changes as we get older. If an older adult has difficulty hearing, seeing, or remembering details, be patient and listen. These changes are difficult for seniors too, so have empathy and try to understand how they feel.
  • Don’t rely on stereotypes. There are many ageist stereotypes about seniors, so it’s important not to project those onto the older adults in your life. Don’t assume all seniors have had the same experiences, or want to be spoken to in the same way.

Do …
  • Be friendly. Older adults appreciate it when you take time to get to know them, just like anyone else. Engage in small talk, learn details about their life, and remember those details to ask about later. It’s the little things that often mean the most and show you care.
  • Be aware of your body language and tone. Non-verbal communication is just as important as your words – including tone, gestures, and facial expression. Don’t shout, speak too slowly, or use body language that comes off as bored or disinterested. You can adjust your communication style if it becomes clear that someone needs a different volume or pace, but don’t assume that’s the case.
  • When in doubt, just ask. Ask seniors how they want to be communicated with. What name do they prefer? Do they have any difficulty hearing? Giving older adults the ability to set the tone of the conversation themselves shows that you value their thoughts, opinions, and needs.

The most important takeaway is that everyone deserves to be treated and spoken to with respect, no matter their age. Be aware of your communication style with older adults, and think about how your words and actions may be received.
 
Get more helpful advice for seniors and caregivers on the InnovAge blog, including:  
This post is based on information shared in a seminar hosted by the American Society on Aging titled “Communicating with Older Adults: Medium, Mode, and Message” as part of their Lifetime Education and Referral Network (LEARN) series. Research presented by Wayne State University Institute of Gerontology.

 
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