By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.
“You can communicate best when you first listen.” — Catherine Pulsifer
Older adults are not a homogenous group. For starters, some older adults belong to the Gen X generation and are still working and raising their families. Some older adults are from older generations like the Boomers and the Greatest Generation and are at a very different place in their lives.
Here are some factors that may impact how you connect with them and therefore your ability to communicate effectively.
- First, consider the lived experiences of the person you are talking to. Older generations may struggle to question doctors and other authority figures. When presenting information, keep in mind the dynamics they may have absorbed and do your best to offer opportunities to ask questions openly.
- Consider Race and LBGTQ+ Status – Contemplate if there is a historical power imbalance between the people who need to communicate. If the elder identifies in a historically marginalized group, they may not feel comfortable confiding in others, or they may feel more at ease if they can speak to someone who shares their lived experiences. Try to connect by offering them the opportunity to bring you up to speed about what they have seen in their lives and how it has affected who they are today.
- Technology – If you are producing media for great numbers of people, remember that older adults may have a different comfort zone (like radio or newsprint) than younger people (who may prefer social media and email).
- Consider Bodily Changes – Some people lose sensory abilities as they age. They may struggle to read small print or have hearing loss. Consider offering materials in multiple formats – large font, Braille, readers and audio format.
- Consider Culture – Maybe you are struggling to get your message across because the older adult doesn’t speak your language. Technology has made it much easier to meet people part way – Use “I Speak” cards to help identify the language that someone understands best; then use Google Translate to make simple sentences.
- Cognitive Decline – There are many ways a brain can change during aging. If you don’t know what kinds of changes they have experienced, try any of the following: slow, clear speech, simple words, and communicate one thought at a time. Try not to multitask. Let them see your face so they can read lips and follow your facial expressions. Try not to yell even if you are trying to be louder.
- Personalize It – If you cannot make yourself understood, have someone else try. Your inflection, tone, volume, or pitch may be hard for some to hear properly. Don’t be offended if someone cannot understand you. Remember the message is the important part.
- Try, Try, Again – Be creative and try multiple formats if needed. Sit together in front of a computer and do ‘text to speech’ so they can see the words as you are talking. Try demonstrating what you are trying to convey.
- Be Aware of the Environment – Is there a lot of background noise? Are you in a hurry because you are leaving for the day? Is it right after lunch when the elder is less alert? Consider trying a different time if you don’t make a connection the first time.
- LISTEN – Above all else, if you cannot make yourself understood, maybe you need to listen. Everyone needs to be heard and if you are pushing your agenda at the exclusion of theirs, you will never get anywhere. Stop and listen. You may learn quite a bit.
There are thousands of parts of each effort at communication that can go wrong. Keep trying and you will hit on the parts that go right. Communication is a two-way street, so listen, speak, and listen again to make sure you understood their concerns and they understand yours.