How to communicate with older adults…
I remember walking into my first nursing home as a student speech pathologist in 2006. I don’t remember where it was, or who I was with, but I do remember being asked to conduct a swallow assessment on “the man at the table with the striped shirt”. We made it through the assessment and all was well. He didn’t talk much, if at all. I looked at his chart as I wrote up my notes and realised he had come to the nursing home the same year I was born, 1988. I remember feeling a new found sadness. The care was great, he had family visiting and he was ok. Still, twenty two years seemed like a long time.
The reality is that most of us will age and the statistics reflect this. Recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggest that the number of Australians aged 65 and over is expected to increase rapidly, from around 2.5 million in 2002 to 6.2 million in 2042. This equates to an increase from around 13 per cent of the population to around 25 per cent.
My initial soberness as a student has now been replaced by a more practical train of thought. Socialisation plays a large role in maintaining quality of life as people age. Research shows that older adults, who have strong social networks, appear to have a higher quality of life, live longer and are healthier compared to those with little social support (Glass, Mendes de Leon, Marottolie & Berkman, 1999).
Good communication skills are integral in maintaining participation and improving the quality of social interactions. Developing skills as a communication partner are also vital, especially considering the cognitive changes which can (but NOT necessarily) accompany aging (i.e. dementia, stroke, general health decline, Parkinson’s disease etc). Additionally, reduced physical access, hearing loss and visual changes can affect how a person can access social environments and participate in positive communication interactions.
Below are some practical tips for maximising communication with an elderly loved one, friend or patient who may need support communicating.
- Aim to minimise background noises that may be distracting (e.g., turn off the TV, close the door, or move to a quite, familiar place).
- Begin the conversation with a relevant topic (e.g., the weather or what the person had for lunch).
- Avoid giving important messages at the beginning of your conversation.
- Talk about familiar subjects such as family members and special interests of the person. Studies show that high stimulus topics are more likely to elicit a strong stimulus response.
- Stick to a topic. Avoid changing topics too quickly or frequently.
- 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.”)
- Reminisce! Use old photos, home video, newspaper clippings, and familiar objects. Memories are important to all of us. Again, familiar stimulus is more likely to promote two-way conversations.
- If you have a tablet computer/iPad, consider downloading Apps such as, Kaleidoscope (art), Conversation Starters, Trivia Games, Scrabble, Pandora (music), Zinio (merges top news stories of the day), ABC iView (the latest ABC shows streamed free on the iPad to watch whenever) or hobby based apps such as CakeDoodle (for the baker in us all!), iFish Pond (for those who like to fish, but may not do it as frequently as they would like) or Let’s Create – Pottery. These apps can help to create a shared communication activity.
- Allow extra time in conversation or when asking questions. Don’t rush.
- If a person has difficulty communicating requests, give choices to ease decision making. (e.g., use closed questions like “Do you want tea or coffee?” rather than open ended questions like “What do you want to drink?”)
A Speech Pathologist can provide personalised advice on ways to maximise communication with people of all ages. Please contact our Speech Pathologist’s Eugene or Jenna for more information.