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What Do You Say to Senior Adults – and How?

Have you ever been frustrated because of a conversation with an older adult? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, everyone who has regular contact with seniors probably wonders why conversations are so difficult.

Why do older adults resist beneficial change? Why do they talk about things that seem irrelevant to us? Why won’t many seniors take medications as prescribed? 

The answers may lie in how we interact with the seniors we encounter every day. Above all, we need to understand a few basics about communicating with older adults and learning what to say the right way.

Better communication with seniors begins with recognizing we all have different agendas. For seniors, maintaining a sense of control is a basic need. When it comes to driving, for instance, many of us might say: “Dad, don’t you think you should stop driving?” A better way to address the issue would be to say, “Tell me, Dad, how have the ‘rules of the road’ changed since you first got your license?”

When an older adult is resistant to a change, our badgering won’t make the situation better. Instead, we might need to rephrase a concern that offers control. “Mom, I sense you don’t like the idea of selling the house. I won’t mention the subject again, but I’d like to hear your ideas about how we’ll maintain it.”

All of us can benefit from understanding the common communication habits of the elderly, including their lack of urgency and wandering off of a topic. In fact, these two factors open the doors to our understanding of an older senior’s need to be remembered.

Older adults whose health has slowed them down begin to focus on internal matters. They know that making quick decisions is not what life is about. This stage of their lives is about understanding what has happened and what it means. It’s best if we accept their pace as normal, not ours.For us, it’s the art of acceptance.

Conversations that wander from a topic typically wind up emphasizing values that carry special meaning for the older person. These conversations give seniors a way to sort and discover what’s important to them. If stories are repeated, accept that this communication habit is a necessary part of the life review process. It’s not the repeated facts that are important, it’s the values those facts represent. Tapping into these values allows older adults to begin to form their legacy.

Our job is to listen and seek understanding. When you hear a repeated story, consider this response: “Your story always makes me wish my life were less hectic. What do you think I’m missing today that was so important then?”

Our job is to connect and reconnect, allowing the elders in our lives to see themselves as wise and valued individuals: “Dad, I avoided military service by staying in school. Now my sons want to enlist and we’re at war. What do you think I should tell them?”

None of this comes easily, but by selecting our words carefully, as well as our tone and attitude, we can craft more effective sentences.Consider this comparison: “Yes, Mom, you’ve told me about Aunt Myrtle and how her death affected you. What else is on your mind?” Or, “Of course I know about Aunt Myrtle, Mom, but I never realized how deeply her death affected you. What was your life like before she died?”

As a community, we can all build better relationships with the older adults in our lives.

If you have the time and interest, consider my course in communicating with seniors at WCCCD. It’s one of the ways to close the communication gap with our seniors. 

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Boomers Resource Guide is a special supplement to the Senior Citizen's Guide