Communicating with Older Adults this Thanksgiving

Recommendations for communicating with older adults this Thanksgiving

people-mother-family-father-older-happyThanksgiving is a time when many of us get together with family near and far to feast and enjoy each-others company. The majority of these festivities involve our older parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Aging can have a profound effect on communication and can create barriers between us and our older loved ones. In contrast, there is also a lot that remains unchanged by the aging process. For example, there is no evidence of decline in most aspects of language ability among older adults, including the use of language sounds, meaningful combinations of words, and verbal comprehension. Similarly, crystallized intelligence—the knowledge acquired through education and experience—remains stable or increases with age. Still it is easy for us to give in and become frustrated with an older adult when we encounter or perceive issues like cognitive impairment.

Below are 6 general tips to improve face-to-face communication with an older adult keeping them involved and our family’s happy and healthy.

1. Don’t make assumptions:Older-man-glasses

The older population is not homogeneous; in fact, it is one of the most diverse groups in society. What is true for one 80-year-old adult is not necessarily true for others. Some older adults have specific age-related problems (e.g., sensory loss, decline in memory, slower processing of information) or psychosocial adjustments to aging (e.g., loss of identity, lessening of power and influence over one’s life, retirement from work, separation from family and friends). Gear your communication method to that individual and avoid the tendency to stereotype.

2. Avoid “Elderspeak”:

“Elderspeak” is when you speak to an older adult in a patronizing way. People sometimes address older adults in a style of speech characterized by the use of simplified vocabulary (only using short words), endearing or diminutive terms (sweetie, honey), and exaggerated intonation (unusual stress on certain words, “sing-song” pitch variation). This style of speech may be based on a desire to express caring or sympathy for the older person; conversely, it may be based on a stereotype that all older people are mentally impaired in some way.

In either case, this style of speech is viewed negatively by the majority of older adults including those with a cognitive impairment. As stated before, the vast majority of older adults, regardless of impairment, still have the ability to perceive these tonal cues. Be aware of how you are speaking and remember that if you wouldn’t appreciate the tone, intonation, or terms you are using then your loved ones won’t either.

3. Face Older Adults when Communicating with Them:

smile-mouth-teeth-laugh-65665Their lips should be on the same level as yours when you are talking to them. If the person you are speaking with is sitting, sit facing that person directly. Age-related hearing loss makes it difficult for older adults to understand and remember speech in the presence of background noise, especially multiple competing conversations that are likely to be occurring in a holiday gathering. Being on their level and easy to see can help give visual cues that aid in word recognition.

4. Include seniors in the table conversation:

photo-memory-grandmaIt can be easy to overlook elderly relatives during a holiday meal. Being ignored at any age can cause a loved one to become lonely or agitated. Include them in the table conversation by providing the opportunity to give their view point or offer insight. Be patient, they may need extra time to respond to questions and express their thoughts.


5. Maintain a positive tone:

When speaking with an older adult with dementia, positive responses can be extremely powerful. Once again, older adults with dementia retain their ability to process the tone of communication. A soft tone and patience facilitate responsive behaviors. Conversely, avoid high-pitched and loud utterances which can cause agitation.

6. Avoid speaking slowly:

marketing-man-person-communicationSpeaking slowly actually makes it harder for elders with cognitive impairment to understand. The term “working memory” refers to the temporary storage and processing of information that is required for complex tasks such as learning and language comprehension.  Speaking slowly places an additional burden on working memory in patients with dementia, because they have to hold onto the words in a sentence for a longer time before comprehending the completed sentence. This increases the possibility of misunderstandings.



Take the time to listen to the older adults in your life — listen to their memories, ideas, and opinions. When it comes to the understanding the value of gratitude sometimes it helps to look toward the wisdom of the aging person.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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