Communication with the Elderly
We all have found ourselves in that awkward situation where we had difficulties communicating with an older person. The ageing theory as explained by Dreher (2001) will help us understand how physical changes affect communication in the older generation. In understanding the ageing theory, Dreher explains the disengagement theory and the activity theory that affects the elderly making them withdraw from the society due to low self-esteem caused by physical and mental changes. The art of communication with the elderly is crucial for all, as we have to constantly interact with them in our homes, in the neighborhood, bus station, sub way, or even in the general store. Macdonald (2004) will help us improve our communication skills to effectively converse with the elderly. In addition to Macdonald’s study, the Gerontological Society of America publication on communicating with older adults will further help us understand how to successful communicate with the elderly. This paper will not only improve our art of communicating but will also include the reason I chose to write on this topic, which is out of my personal experience with an elderly relative.
My Personal Experience
I grew up in an extended family where we lived with my parents and grandparents. To this day, I still treasure the rich memories of the experiences this environment gave me. The memories of my grandfather are still vivid in my mind. Back then, he was an energetic, strong, and playful man who had the capacity to run around the house and in our compound as he engaged us in our endless games. I would always look forward to the evenings, when I would find him waiting for us at the gate on our way back home from a long day in school. Sadly, times have changed, and so has my doting grandfather. He is no longer the energetic and bashful man I knew back then as old age that has affected him both physically and mentally. In addition, we have also grown up and as a result, this has had a tremendously impact on our relationship with my grandfather. We are no longer as close as we once were, and this has had a negative impact on our hitherto close relationship. Nowadays, I find myself avoiding him because I feel more of a nuisance to him and I find it difficult to talk to him for a long duration. Lately, he spends his quiet time alone reading newspapers with the aid of his huge glasses. I thought I was the only one affected by his behavior but recently when we were having a conversation with my younger sister about him, she also disclosed to me that she finds it rather disturbing to make conversation with our grandfather. His hearing is no longer too good, so, you have to repeat what you are saying more than once, and at times, you even have to shout. However, we converse often with my grandfather; communication with him has proven to be a difficult task due to his hearing impairment. The deteriorating relationship between my grandfather and I, made me choose this topic on communicating with the elderly so that I may learn how to understand him and to interact with him.
The Ageing Process
According to the Gerontological Society of America (2012), there are several changes that are associated with aging. To begin with, physical changes are always inevitable in as far as the aging process is concerned. Some of these physical changes as enumerated by the Gerontological Society of America (2012) include hearing loss, visual impairment, as well as problems with speech. It is important to note that loss of hearing is the third most common condition that affects the older generation as reported by the Gerontological Society of America (2012). Men are more likely to have hearing impairment compared to women. Hearing loss is associated with depression, low self-esteem, and reduced function. It makes individual experience feelings of isolation and mistrust because he or she may not have the ability to appropriately respond during conversation. Moreover, the occurrence of psychological changes often affects the memory, in effect resulting in short memory and low speed in processing information. Seeing as these changes usually affect an individual’s ability to communicate, as a result, he or she often forgets very simple things to the extent that he/she can even forget who they are having a conversation. At the same time, changing social roles are also associated with aging where retirement results to loss of income and social status resulting to low self-esteem and withdrawal from loved ones and the society (Macdonald, 2004).
The science behind ageing has led to the development of several theories to explain the changes observed in ageing individuals. Dresher (2001) explains the disengagement theory, which describes the social withdrawal that has been observed in older people. They tend to fade away socially from their environment. This withdrawal is not caused by the society but by the outcome inherent to biological and psychological changes. On the other hand, the activity theory explains that the physical, mental, and social activities are essential for the changes that occur (Dreher, 2001). The theory maintains that the amount of change is not determined by age, rather than socioeconomic factors and lifestyle lived by an individual in his earlier years. Apparently, withdrawal from society and reduced physical and mental activity reveals an overall dissatisfaction with life.
Communication Strategies: Avoiding Awkward Moments
Studies show that most young people in the United States are unwilling to interact with the elderly (Samovar, Porter & McDaniel, 2009). The age stigma is so unconcealed in our society that during retirement, the elderly are in a way segregated by being put in retirement homes rather than moving in with their relatives. The negative view towards the elderly is so extreme in our society yet we all will be in the same situation one day.
As much as we are unwilling to interact with the elderly, we can never avoid them. They are our relatives and immediate neighbors. What we can do is develop communication strategies in order to avoid awkward moments when interacting with them. Macdonald (2004) explains that it is important to speak slowly with a low, clam voice when communicating with them. We find ourselves speaking in a high-pitched voice when interacting with the elderly, which should not be the case. Older people tend to register low-pitched sound as compared to high-pitched sound.
In addition, use of simplified vocabulary is not advisable when speaking to an older person. The use of ‘pet names’ such as cutie are viewed negatively by the older generation. Their interpretation is that they are being treated like a child. According to the Gerontological Society of America (2012), pet names make the older people feel disrespected. The elderly prefer using their own names when referring to them. Moreover, avoid using simplified vocabulary when speaking to them because they maintain their vocabulary and some actually improve it.
The communication strategies with the elderly by MacDonald and the Gerontological Society of America have impacted me in a great way. As earlier sated, most of us are unwilling to interact with them due to difficulties in conversations and their sensitive nature. We can however not avoid them, as they are our relatives. We can only understand them and learn how to effectively communicate with them. Interacting with my grandfather and other elderly people has been made easier. With the understanding gained, our relationship will improve, as I will no longer avoid him. Moreover, knowledge on isolation and withdrawal tendencies portrayed in elderly individuals has helped me understand my grandfather. My childhood memories may never be actualized in my life again, but my future relationship with my grandfather is surely hopeful.
Dreher, B. B. (2001). Communication skills for working with elders. New York: Springer.
Macdonald, E. (2004). Difficult conversations in medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Gerontological Society of America (2012). Communicating with Older Adults: An Evidence Based Review on what Really Works. Washington, DC. 3-5. Retrieved from http://www.agingresources.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/GSA_Communicating-with-Older-Adults-low-Final.p
Samovar, L. A., Porter, R. E., & McDaniel, E. R. (2009).Communication between cultures. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth.