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Communication with Older Adults

I was in line at the grocery store with an older gentleman and what appeared to be his caregiver before me. The older gentleman gave the clerk cash for the groceries he purchased. Instead of giving the change to the older gentleman, the clerk handed it to his caregiver. I had a friend tell me she was at a restaurant with her grandmother, and the waitress looked beyond her grandmother and asked my friend, “What does she want to drink?”

I bet anyone who has spent time with an older adult has had similar experiences with an elder being ignored, with the assumption he or she isn’t capable of speaking or acting on his or her own behalf. Even those who provide older adult services have tendencies to look past the elder and look for the answer from someone else.

Most older adults age well and remain very capable, despite some of the foreseeable declines that come with the aging process. Despite this fact, there are too many times we attach incorrect labels and stereotypes to people who have gray hair and lines on their skin.

Many older adults I talk with don’t see themselves as old, and they don’t want that label. Like everyone else, they would rather be known for their interests, experiences, careers, military service or hobbies. When we approach people of every age, whether they are in their 30s, 40s or 50s, we don’t expect them to keep the company of people in their age group. However, we often expect the elderly to act a certain way and to be content around people their own age. What I have learned is older people are just as diverse as younger generations.

How do we learn not to focus on age and instead see the person for who they are? How can we politely let a salesperson know their attention needs to be on the older adult and not the person they are with?

An older adult might require time to process information and respond. Hearing deficits might require face-to-face communication and low, slow speech. Many of us meet older adults who have cognitive impairments and might not recognize their loved ones or communicate their thoughts and feelings. This can be frustrating and result in not spending time with them. Instead, address the older adults during conversations and offer simple explanations. Look into that person’s eyes and encourage others to do the same. Begin your conversation with a simple smile and a quiet, “Hello there.”

This type of interaction can serve as a model for all of your personal interactions – no matter what the person’s age.

Kathleen Weston
Preceptor Home Health Hospice