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How to Communicate Effectively with Elderly Parents

How to communicate with older parents

Effective communication is key to establishing positive relationships with people in life. By showing respect, speaking clearly and using language that the other person will easily understand, a bond will form and you will probably get along very well with that person. When we know people from a young age, we are likely to establish clear and effective communication with them before long.

We get to know our parents at an early stage in our lives and such is the trust we have in them that we often turn to them to talk about life’s most delicate topics. When our parents reach retirement age, though, communicating with them can become challenging in more ways than one. Their hearing and speech might not be as clear as before, so it can require patience to understand what they’re saying and ensuring that they can understand you. Also, some uncomfortable conversations may need to take place regarding topics which could cause fear in elderly people, so it’s vital to approach these in the right manner.

Once our parents become senior citizens, the sad truth is that we might not have all that much more time to spend with them, so we want our final years with them to be as joyful as possible. By keeping open lines of communication that are clear and respectful, a positive relationship can be maintained and both parties can get their respective messages across without annoyance and recrimination.

Barriers to effective communication with elderly parents

It can happen that, either through a decline in elderly parents’ speech or hearing, or a lack of clarity in speaking to them, there are metaphorical barriers to effective communication. These barriers can cause conversations to break down and potentially lead to unwanted friction, yet they can sometimes be very easily resolved. The first step is to understand what might act as an obstacle to effective communication.

1. An elderly parent could find it difficult to hear what you’re saying to them. If this happens regularly, it might be a good idea to bring them to a doctor who can perform initial hearing tests. If more advanced hearing tests are needed, the doctor could recommend an audiologist.

2. An elderly parent could have difficulty with speaking clearly, which makes it harder for others to understand what he/she is trying to say. Problems with enunciation could have several root causes, including hearing difficulties, ill-fitting dentures and side effects from a stroke.

3. An elderly parent who has no trouble with hearing or speaking clearly could still find it difficult to understand a conversation if the person speaking to them is using overly sophisticated terminology when simpler synonyms would be more effective.

4. An elderly parent might have aphasia, a communication disorder which makes it hard for him/her to comprehend what is being said because of damage to the part of the brain which controls language.

5. An elderly parent might go into lockdown mode and become defensive if he/she is beginning to lose independence. If this happens, it is often helpful to use alternative phrasing or wait for him/her to calm down if he/she becomes especially defensive.

6. Asking an elderly parent close-ended questions with one-word answers can make it very difficult for communication to flow freely. Conversations with too many close-ended questions are likely to discourage the other person from engaging in communication, so rather than asking a close-ended question like “Did you enjoy your holiday?”, pose an open-ended one such as “How did you get on with your holiday? What did you like about it?”

7. Employing a bossy tone in speaking with elderly parents is a disastrous technique, as they are likely to react negatively to being ‘talked down to’ and could refuse to co-operate with you.

Communication with older parents

Tips for communicating with elderly parents

Now that we’ve discussed some of the barriers to effective communication, what about the ways and means through which dialogue with elderly parents is likely to have the desired effect? Here’s a few helpful tips which should promote healthy communication between you and your parents:

1. Ask, don’t advise: If you’re trying to encourage an elderly parent to do something, it’s best to put it in the form of seeking their opinion rather than imposing yours on them. For instance, instead of putting them under duress by saying “I think we should go for a walk”, invite them as equals by asking “Would you like to go for a walk with me?”

2. Give them choices: As an extension to the previous point, an even better phrasing would be “Would you like to go for a walk with me or would you prefer to stay here and relax?” This indicates that you’re trying to get a message across to them (i.e. going for a walk), but gives them total freedom and comfort to decide for themselves without feeling pressurised.

3. Listen; don’t just hear: There’s a fine difference between hearing what someone is saying and actively listening to them. Effective listening involves giving the other person scope to speak their mind without interrupting them, while it helps to relay to them in your own words what they just told you, as this shows you were paying attention.

4. Be prepared for agreeing to differ: No matter how healthy and cordial the relationship is between you and your elderly parents, there are some topics where contrasting wants are likely. If differences of opinion occur, allow your parents to communicate their view before responding politely and respectfully with yours. If it becomes clear that neither of you is going to change your opinion, just agree to differ instead of letting the situation deteriorate into a petty and potentially toxic argument.

5. Create an ideal environment for communication: When communicating with elderly parents, it’s best to do so in a quiet, distraction-free environment, especially if the topic being discussed is a sensitive one. Favour a comfortable environment like home over a noisy one such as a shopping centre café.

6. Address issues early but take the time to think: If you notice a decline in elderly parents’ senses that needs to be addressed, it’s best to talk to them about it as soon as possible, as ignoring the matter will only lead to the problem getting worse. Before talking to them about such delicate matters, though, give yourself time to think about how to approach the conversation so that you don’t panic and blurt out insensitive words.

7. Do not be patronising: Do you remember when you were a teenager or young adult and how annoyed you felt when your parents spoke to you as if you were an infant? That’s how an elderly parent will feel if you, as a middle-aged adult, address them like a small child. They will detect condescension quickly and react very negatively to it, with good reason.

This video discusses how to communicate with older parents so that a positive connection is made.

Communicating with elderly parents who have dementia

We all live in the same physical world, but in reality, we each deconstruct the world in our own way to create unique perceptions of the world around us. For most of us, our perceptions of the world are similar enough for us to cohabit harmoniously. However, people with dementia interpret the world much differently to others. For people with dementia, the world around them often makes little or no sense, which can lead to plentiful confusion and frustration.

Few things are more futile than attempting to reason with a person that has dementia, as he/she will see the world in their own way and refute alternative perceptions. This isn’t for any malicious or obnoxious reason; it’s a case of the person’s cognitive capabilities enabling them to only see the world in one way. What the person with dementia sees is their reality, so trying to argue otherwise is not only pointless, but also disrespectful.

If you have an elderly parent living with dementia, take note of these tips in how to communicate with them:

1. Validate their feelings: Instead of trying to force alternative opinions on them, listen to what they say and validate it by showing empathy for their feelings. For example, if they talk ruefully about a partner who has died, say something like “I can see that you’re upset” or “I know you miss them very much”. This indicates that you understand how they’re feeling, which makes life far easier for them.

2. Say, then do: If you intend to interact with a parent with dementia in a certain manner, let them know first before you proceed with the interaction so that it is less likely to be misinterpreted. For example, when speaking compassionately with them, you could say “I’m going to touch your hand if that is OK”, as taking their hand without giving any indication could be misinterpreted as you grabbing them in a manner that they find frightening.

3. Speak very slowly: Speak at half the speed of your usual speech when talking to a person with dementia, as they require more time to process what you say to them. Pause for breath between each sentence so that they can process your words at a comfortable pace.

4. Keep sentences short: By getting to the point, there is less filler for people with dementia to try and take in, while saying only what is necessary makes your message clear to them.

5. One question at a time: Never ask multiple questions in the same breath when talking to a person with dementia. Keep it to one at a time so that they can answer it comfortably before moving on to your next question. Also, never ask ‘Why?’, as a person with dementia might find it difficult to answer.

6. Never say “remember”: A person with dementia has difficulties with memory, so asking them to ‘remember’ is not only futile but also degrading, as it’s pointing out a sensitive subject with which they struggle.

Words to use or avoid when communicating with older parents

Two words might be synonyms of each other and have essentially the same meaning, but the connotations they evoke could be very different. One phrase could be viewed in a positive light as respectful or well-intentioned, while another could be received negatively and seem insulting or hurtful. Here’s a few examples which show how the same message can be communicated in two sharply contrasting ways.

Words to use or avoid when communicating with older parents