Are senior citizen communication challenges like autism? It doesn’t surprise me that people in their eighties experience communication breakdowns. What puzzles me, however, is that their communication partners don’t grasp the need to make adjustments. Sometimes family members, store clerks and medical personnel don’t seem to “get it.” These communication partners don’t typically make simple adjustments that could help that elderly person interact and manage more easily.
It’s so easy to become goal directed (meaning accomplishing my task) instead of people directed (making sure the senior citizen is getting what they need to accomplish their task).
Here are 5 things we all need to remember so we can be effective in our interactions with senior citizens.
Seniors are not as alert as they used to be when they were younger In fact, little naps can be pretty common. When my Mom was in the hospital, I saw nurses come in and talk to her when she wasn’t awake. By the time Mom woke up and oriented to the conversation, the nurse was half done with what she was saying. Mom missed most of the message.
Yelling doesn’t work. But older people frequently don’t hear as well as they used to. It’s common for seniors to experience difficulty hearing, especially in noisy places like restaurants or when there is background noise like music or the TV. There are multiple causes, and an evaluation is recommended. By age 75, more than 1/3 of women and almost ½ of men have some degree of hearing loss.
But from a functional point of view, the hearing loss may get worse gradually. That means the senior citizen may not really realize the amount of impairment they are experiencing. In addition, some seniors resist things like doctor appointments and hearing aids, so getting an evaluation won’t be high on their “to do” list.
High frequency hearing loss is common. That means women and children will be harder to hear. Seniors benefit when you lower your voice and speak up a bit.
Besides not hearing as well, seniors don’t hear as “fast” as they did before. It’s common for them to experience a reduction in the speed of mental processing. Remembering information and associating it with names and prior knowledge takes more time than it used to. Their ability to retrieve information is not as effective as when that person was younger. When people talk too fast, seniors miss much of the message.
It’s easy for seniors to get confused. Older people may not completely understand what you are talking about. When they are working hard to understand something, (because you are talking too fast and not loud enough) and you keep talking, they miss everything else you are saying.
Modern vocabulary, especially medical terms, may not be familiar or comfortable for seniors. Simplify and use the vocabulary the senior is familiar with. When Mom was in the hospital, the intern came in to describe a medical procedure. He began his explanation with, “You are going to have a transcatheter mitral valve repair. The catheter will traverse your. . .” I don’t think she heard anything else he said.
Seniors often don’t see as well as they used to. Still visual supports can be helpful. Giving information in a visual form can help seniors process it more easily than when they just hear it. Use calendars, written notes, clocks, pictures, pill holders and other visual tools to help them orient and remember. Just make sure the visual supports are big enough and clear enough for the senior to benefit from.
Color-coding is great, but choose paper that provides good contrast so the writing is legible. Dad would get frustrated when he got cards from people who wrote in the tiniest handwriting with light colored ink on colored paper. He wouldn’t even try to read it.
Planning, organizing, and making decisions can become difficult for older individuals. These activities become much more challenging when seniors experience communication breakdowns along the way and don’t get complete information. Dad had a lot of difficulty with this. He thought he knew what he wanted or needed to do, but he couldn’t ask the right questions or remember the important information to make necessary decisions.
When I have taken my folks shopping or to appointments or meetings I end up being the translator. I’ll admit that there have been times when I’ve told someone, “If you want my Mom to understand what you are saying, you are going to have talk louder and slower.” Sometimes that little bit of “coaching” works. Other times it doesn’t.
Then there are people who are the angels. They are “naturals.” Some people just make these types of communication adjustments without even thinking about it. They just know how to communicate clearly for seniors.. These end up being the people that the senior citizens enjoy going to or being with the most.
Think about it. Get their attention. Talk loud enough and slow enough to be understood. Use language they will understand. Make sure to remember visual supports.
I’m smiling because these are the same kinds of encouragements I speak about to communication partners of children with autism. Funny. Being a good communication partner works for children with autism and it works for senior citizens, too.
There can be different reasons that seniors and children with autism demonstrate the same types of challenges. But for me as the communication partner, I can help them all by adjusting how I communicate with them.
P.S. There’s one other behavior that really makes a difference. When Dad was sitting in a wheel chair or lying down in bed in the hospital, some people stood up next to him to talk to him. That means Dad could view their belly buttons or their knees, depending on the situation. The really good communication partners adjusted things so that they were talking face-to-face with Dad. That really improved the communication interactions.
P.P.S. Here’s one of the best gifts I ever gave my senior citizen parents. I’ll bet it works well for lots of others, too. This digital memory clock helps so much with orientation and memory.
P.P.P.S. When I’m speaking, I regularly have people talk to me after the program about how they use the same visual strategies with a senior citizen friend or family member. Visual strategies work!