Communicating With an Aging Adult: How to Be a Good Listener When Working With the Elderly

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When working with the elderly, many individuals undergo a great deal of professional preparation. Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN’s) and Registered Nurses (RN’s) go through years of schooling. Home health aides (HHA’s) must complete a training and certification process. Both these groups also have mandated continuing education to make sure they stay updated on skills and new techniques.

But some critical skills aren’t ones you can learn in school, especially when communicating with older adults. And as simple as it may seem, chief among these is the ability to listen—really listen.

Why Listening Is Important

You don’t have to be a professional caregiver for an older adult for them to benefit from your listening skills. Perhaps the person in question is a loved one and you are their family caregiver. Regardless, you need to hear what they’re really saying and respond in an appropriate way in order to provide quality care.

What they say vs. what they mean

Many times, older adults will complain about physical ailments when their pain is really psychological.1 It’s important to be able to tell the difference. For instance, let’s say they tell you over and over about vague aches and pains they’re having. Once a medical cause has been investigated and their condition stabilized, they may not be telling you about pain at all. Instead, they might be hoping you’ll be concerned enough to spend more time with them, or perhaps they have a different complaint they can’t bring themselves to express.

Changes in communication methods

Keep an eye out for changes in communication methods as well. Is your loved one talking a great deal less or more than before? These changes can indicate depression or anxiety. Have they altered the way they employ language (for instance, using smaller words, forgetting words and ideas, or drifting off mid-sentence)?2 This can mean anything from mild cognition problems to full-blown Alzheimer’s.

Dealing with generalized complaints

Older adults can sometimes have a reputation for complaining too much in general, but there are often good reasons for this! Coping with chronic and degenerative conditions, dealing with the loss of friends and abilities, and the potential for social isolation are all valid causes for complaint. However, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy for caretakers to hear about them over and over again.

Addressing ongoing complaints takes a variety of approaches. Sometimes, empathy is called for. “I hear you saying you’re very lonely since your friend, Louise, passed away. Do you want to talk about that?” Other times, you may need to problem-solve or “troubleshoot” the person’s issue. “You’ve been saying you’re bored a lot. Do you want me to look into community programs you could attend?”

It’s important not to move to the problem-solving phase too quickly, however. Many times, the older adult doesn’t want you to fix things for them. Instead, they simply want you to acknowledge what they’re going through so they don’t feel left alone with painful emotions.

Also, recognize that you may not always be able to be with your loved one to deal with their complaints, no matter what they are. In times like these, a professional companion can do a world of good by visiting just a few hours a week.

Working with the Elderly Requires a Special Kind of Communicator

We use different forms of communication for different people, and at different stages of their lives. You wouldn’t talk to your boss the same way you’d talk to your spouse, nor would you talk to your toddler the same way you’d talk to your best friend. Good listening skills are essential when interacting with older adults because you play such a large role in their physical and mental well-being.

By using some of the tips and tricks above, anyone can learn to communicate more effectively with this population. And along the way you’re sure to find unique methods that work just for that particular individual and you!

If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. “Depression in Older Adults and the Elderly,” August, 2015, http://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/depression-in-older-adults-and-the-elderly.htm
  2. “Changes in communication,” https://www.alz.org/care/dementia-communication-tips.asp#changes
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