Improving Communications with Elderly Parents

Effective communication is simply the key to establishing positive relationships with people close to you. Giving respect, speaking slowly and clearly and listening to what they have to say will help you form a bond that will let you get along better with that person

Improving Communications with Elderly Parents

Effective communication is simply the key to establishing positive relationships with people close to you. Giving respect, speaking slowly and clearly and listening to what they have to say will help you form a bond that will let you get along better with that person

Growing old is not just about the process of changing physical changes that appear. Old age also brings with it a number of other changes like illness, lack of Interest and slowly deteriorating senses of vision, hearing and cognition etc. Communication is an essential aspect of people’s lives. And in case of older adults, communication may be central to their identity and self-esteem, social support and quality of life. The ability to communicate and be understood, respected and responded to in a dignified and person-centered way is fundamental to the person’s well-being.[1]

Higher standards of living and medical advancements are extending life expectancies in many countries to well above the age of eighty. By the year 2030, a projected 71 million Americans will be age 65 or older, an increase of more than 200 percent from the year 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.[2]  It is estimated that some 6,000 people turn age 65 every day and, by 2012, 10,000 people will turn age 65 every day. [3]

When parents grow old, the initial impact is seen in the family structure as the roles begin to reverse. The kids that they saw growing into adults slowly find themselves taking over the role of being primary care givers of their old parents. This transition of when the children start becoming the ones to offer opinions and make important decisions related to them can be unsettling for the elderly people. Since this kind of situation can be awkward for the parents and children involved, instead of ignoring or delaying these vital conversations, keeping open lines of communication are important for both parties to get their respective messages across without annoyance and recrimination.

Lubinski proposed that communication serves several critical roles in the lives of older adults, including maintaining a sense of identity, and relieving loneliness, depression, or anxiety. Communication also allows older adults to exert influence and to help others by listening, reflecting, and offering advice. If communication is compromised, social life is affected.[4]

Effective communication is simply the key to establishing positive relationships with people close to you. Giving respect, speaking slowly and clearly and listening to what they have to say will help you form a bond that will let you get along better with that person. And as in this case, when we know a person from a young age, we are more likely to succeed in establishing an effective and clear communication with them.


The process of interpersonal communication cannot be regarded as a phenomenon which simply ‘happens'. Instead, it must be seen as a process that involves participants who negotiate their roles with each other, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is important to understand that there are a number of causes that can result in the message not getting transferred in its true sense to the receiver. This situation can become more complicated because of certain barriers that can hinder our communication with elderly parents;

The potential types of hearing impairment in older adults can include age-related reduced ability to hear at high frequency, conductive hearing loss and tinnitus. In a large survey of more than 12,000 Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 years or more, 42% reported hearing problems.[5] So an elderly parent could find it difficult to hear what you’re saying to them. In such a situation, it might be a good idea to have them visit an audiologist to help improve hearing ability.


Vision loss affects one in five adults over the age of 75 years and one in two adults over the age of 90 years. [1] Other potential changes like increased sensitivity to glare or light, Glaucoma leading to side or peripheral vision loss and cataract also occur with growing age. Vision impairment can result in challenges while undertaking daily activities, including communication. It can also have psychosocial consequences, including an increased risk of depression and anxiety.[6]


Cognitive changes are known to be associated with ageing. [1] For example, thought processing naturally slows with age. Therefore, it may be necessary for children to use slower speech when communicating with older adults and provide additional time to enable these individuals to process and respond to communication.


Elderly people have a tendency to get into a lockdown mode and become defensive if they feel their independence being tested. In such situations they are likely to react negatively to being ‘told to do’ something and could refuse to co-operate with you. In situations like these, it is often helpful to wait for them to calm down or try using alternative phrasing.


Effective communication requires you to tailor your message to your audience. When it comes to older adults, many of us make the mistake of treating them like children, or invalids. Here are a few simple but essential steps you can take to improve your communication with your elderly parents:


Just like our parents were always patient and compassionate to us during our childhood. Similarly we as adult caregivers need to show patience and be compassionate when dealing with the elderly. Special consideration needs to be given to the barriers like physical challenges, reduced cognition, apathy and even forgetfulness, which we will encounter while interacting with our elderly.

Sometimes you can easily get frustrated and have that urge to give up and walk away. It is moment like these, when you really need to show empathy and think from their perspective for a moment. If you are still feeling the temptation to react and lose patience, it is better to take a step back and return to the conversation when you are in a more calm and collected state of mind.


Your aging parents are not as physically and mentally agile as they used to be. It is important to make sure you match their pace and not rush things. Take it slow, be patient, and smile, as a sincere smile from a child shows them that you are there with all your heart and you understand their situation.

Your interactions with your elderly parents will be more satisfying and productive if you can carve out substantial time to spend with them, rather than just stopping by for a couple of minutes or having a quick phone call from office. By trying to rush the conversation or trying to push them into doing something, you are only going to add to their stress and frustration.


Elderly parents have already been through the phase of being ‘adult caregivers’ themselves. So they do understand your behavior and body language better than you might think. Whenever you manage to take out time for them it is important that you Listen; not just hear. Do not interrupt them or feel the urge to fill those short periods of silence during conversations, that pause could mean your parent is trying to contemplate a response so let them use that time.

Every now and then it is tempting to interrupt and steer the conversation back on track. But if you pay attention, you might find that a seemingly irrelevant point indicates a concern you were not aware of. It also helps once in a while to relay to them in your own words what they just told you, as this shows you were paying attention.


Some older adults might not like to admit that they are hard of hearing or cannot process the conversation being held around them. So it is our duty to make sure that we speak clearly and articulately while also making eye contact. Speak louder, if necessary, but do not shout, and direct your speech at the individual's face not to their side.

If your loved one is still not grasping what you are saying, try rephrasing your sentences using simpler words. Also remember to pause between sentences and questions. Give the individual an opportunity to understand and digest information and questions. When you pause, you show respect and patience.


Be attentive to the environment in which you are communicating with the elderly as it can affect hearing and speech problems. A good gesture would be to ask the older adult if the environment is comfortable for them. If you sense any disturbance, try to move to a more peaceful and quiet location where you both feel comfortable.

Get close enough to your parent and face them as you talk to them so that they can pick up on your facial expressions and read your lips, if necessary. Closeness also helps build trust, but just as importantly, being close helps you keep your tone at an even level. The greater the distance, the more likely you are to have to shout so your words can be heard. When talking in a group or in family gatherings, make sure that the elder is seated in the middle, and not at the outskirts, so that the conversation is happening around them.


Lastly, it is always important to remember that even though you are now the primary caregiver, but you are still dealing with an adult not a child. One of the core needs of many seniors is to feel relevant and respected. You can help validate these needs by asking them their opinions and even taking advice from them about certain matters from time to time. Consider creative ways in which you can help your parents shape their legacy. To keep them involved and stay relevant, you can work with your parents to help build a legacy through concrete, communal projects.

Asking for advice and making them a part of decision making process offers the senior a greater sense of respect and regard. Always be sure your parent is an active participant in the conversation and listen when it is appropriate. This can even help you benefit from their wealth of experience and get some genuine advice from those who have been through adulthood themselves.


Having a complete understanding of proper communication and how to effectively do it is the first step to eventually improving your communication skills. To know the limitations and special considerations while interacting with elderly people will actually make the whole process easier for everyone. Being effective in communicating with our elderly family members, office colleagues or even people we meet in our routine work will not only be a blessing for our loving elders but also make us more useful to them. You will never regret the time you devote to understanding your parents' experience, and all you can do to help them gain a clearer perspective on their lives.

Allie Leon, Chief Fun Officer

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