How to Effectively Communicate with Senior Adults

How to Effectively Communicate with Senior Adults

Posted by Jenn Greenleaf on Jun 25, 2018

How to Effectively Communicate with Senior Adults

Becoming a family caregiver for our aging parent is often something we think of doing without hesitation. As one or both of our parents experience health issues or just grow older, it seems natural for us to bring them into our routines and make them part of our responsibilities. They did take care of and raise us after all, right? Isn’t it the least we can do? While the act of becoming a caregiver for an aging parent is a worthy and noble, it does involve numerous challenges. And one of the most common of those challenges is communication.

Coping with Role Reversal: "Oh, so you’re the parent now?”

No matter what stage of the process we are in, looking toward the future regarding the care of our aging parents can fill us with feelings of ambivalence. We’re used to them being the decision-makers and this new vulnerability they are experiencing can be overwhelming. But now we find ourselves thrust into the role as their caregiver when we spent much of our lives with our parents as our caregiver. In addition to intensifying our parent’s frustrations, it also increases our feelings of guilt and confusion.

It isn’t uncommon for these guilty feelings to crop up every day. This reality is particularly true for those caring for their aging parents while simultaneously managing careers and their own children. They call this the “Sandwich Generation.” While the role reversal issue is still present and the aging parent is well-aware of what’s going on, that doesn’t make matters any easier for some.

Finding oneself caring for an aging parent can be both rewarding and distressing. Regardless of whether it’s a little more of one or the other, you are bound to face “Oh, so you’re the parent now?” moments as you attempt to navigate through daily routines together. How do you manage? Here are some tips:

  • Help your parent understand that you respect their decision to age in place, and you are there to assist them in that effort, not to “boss” them around.
  • Be patient with their new feelings of vulnerability, and bring in the assistance of outside caregivers as needed to help them acclimate to new schedules, and to provide you with needed downtime.
  • Communicate often and don’t allow them to shut down because, even though you are the primary decision-maker now, they still have a say in how their life is run.

Maintaining a Sense of Independence: "I will make my own decisions."

One of the biggest challenges you’ll hit when attempting to communicate with your aging parent is learning how to sidestep power struggles. All the while, you’re going to wonder if this is a possibility or if you’re fighting a losing battle. The first step is understanding their frustrations and that, once you do so, their feelings will not automatically vanish. However, this newfound understanding will help aid in your communication efforts significantly. Rather than attempting to sidestep power struggles, why not take this opportunity to build a new partnership with your aging parent?

Because your aging parent is going to want to make their own decisions the majority of the time, here are some tips to help build a partnership between them:

Time Matters - For those who are not live-in caregivers for their elderly parent, you must make efforts to schedule substantial time with them. Five-minute drop-in’s here and there for quickly touching base with them or to handle situations isn’t enough. They need your time, as well as your attention for effective communication. If you’re a live-in caregiver, you must remain actively attentive throughout your day and make efforts to include them in your routines.

Actively Listen - When your parent is talking about something important to them, take the time to listen attentively. Avoid interrupting their conversations mid-sentence with something you feel is more important—this is where more practice with patience comes into play. You can, however, encourage your parents to reminisce to help with their memory and cognition.

Question - Good communication includes asking good questions. When your parents are reminiscing, ask plenty of open-ended questions to help them further reflect upon the story. These questions will help your parents realize that you are genuinely interested in being an active participant in their daily conversations.

Dealing with Denial: "I've gotten along fine all these years without any need for this doohicky.”

It’s hard to imagine our parents needing us as a primary caregiver, so why wouldn’t they be experiencing these same feelings of denial themselves? Often times when you attempt to provide them with a new service or assistive device, the response you hear may very likely be something along the lines of, “I’ve gotten along just fine without any need for this doohicky.” Even if the need for a walker or safety rails in the bathroom may be quite obvious to you, be prepared for pushback.

The underlying issue is, of course, denial. And we can’t make progress on the problem without understanding their reasoning. Here are some possible reasons your parents could be experiencing denial:

Depression - They could be experiencing feelings of depression—lack of joy, sadness, feels they’re a burden because they need help now.

Embarrassment - They feel self-conscious because they can’t do the things they used to be able to do without help.

Fear - Your parents may have a fear of losing their independence.

Identity - They could feel they’re losing their identity because they need care.

Power - It isn’t uncommon for parents to feel they’ve lost their power, and now feel helpless because their circumstances are changing so quickly.

Pride - Your parents could be fiercely independent and refuse to admit they need help.

Shame - They could feel ashamed because they’re afraid they’re disappointing their family, friends, and others they hold dear.

While these are the core symptoms, others could present themselves including anger and irritability. Unfortunately, because you’re the caregiver for your parent, they’re going to reroute these feelings in your direction. It’s not because they don’t love or care for you anymore. It’s just one of many stages when a person begins realizing the increasing difficulty they are having navigating daily routines.

Again, this is where patience is critical. If it looks like you are heading for an impasse during a discussion, give yourself a time-out. Collect your thoughts, practice relaxation techniques, and understand the difficulties they may be feeling. When you maintain positive spirits while caregiving, you will be better able to prevent yourself from succumbing to the negativity that denial brings.

Be mindful of your parent’s situation by paying attention when they are communicating through denial. This means putting your smartphone away, turning off the television, or calming down young children in the background. Your efforts to eliminate distractions will allow you to be mentally present within the moment, and to listen completely and without judgment.

Here are some tips for helping you communicate with your parent through their denial:

  • Maintain eye contact with your parent while actively listening to their conversation as a means of conveying empathy. Your attention must remain focused on them.
  • To show them you understand what they are presenting, summarize what they just conveyed in your own words. Offer proper responses to statements when appropriate.
  • Whenever you’re not in complete understanding with what your parent is discussing, gently ask them to repeat what mean. Then validate your understanding by summarizing what you just heard.

Strategies for Communicating with Dementia and Alzheimer's Patients

For those who are caring for parents who are suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, their situation is entirely different from that of what’s already been discussed thus far. These parents may be experiencing feelings of confusion, anxiety, irritability, low self-esteem, and depression. Here are some tips for children of parents who are now in the caregiver role and are having challenges with communication:

  • Make sure you speak slowly, clearly, and in a friendly and calm tone.
  • Your body language is important during communication. Those with dementia are receptive to body language and can determine if an individual is angry, happy, or sad. So, if you act frustrated, they may mimic those emotions back to you as a means of communication.
  • Demonstrate through visual cues what you’d like your aging parent to do, rather than verbalizing to them. For example, pick up a fork and show them how to use it instead of telling them.
  • Be sure your parent has appropriate glasses and hearing aids, so they have the best chance of seeing and hearing you clearly.
  • Address your parent by their name as a means of getting his or her attention and, when speaking to them, always maintain eye contact.
  • Always ask one question at a time and wait patiently for them to answer. Be sure they understand your question and, if they don’t, find a way to repeat it until they do.
  • Never rush a conversation because it can cause your parent to feel confused or frustrated. When they are working through an activity, allow them ample time to respond.
  • If you find your parent asking questions over and over, keep in mind that they cannot remember asking previously, or the responses you have already given. Offer your parent reassurance. Help them understand that they are fine, and you are there to help them.
  • When talking to your parent, keep the environment as distraction-free as possible. If a loud TV is playing in the background, it can exasperate their mood.
  • Try using statements that are negative in nature like, “You can’t go outside,” with “Please stay inside” instead.
  • Make sure that all tasks your parent performs with you are broken down into simple steps. That way, when you are communicating with them, added confusion will be minimized. If your parent becomes uncooperative or upset, don’t force them to participate. Stop the activity and assure them that it’s okay to try again another time.

Even when your parent becomes nonverbal and can no longer speak with you through communications, keep talking to them. This effort is an important part of effectively communicating with senior adults because, even though it’s one-sided, they’re listening. They need to hear about things that matter, memories from their past, and what’s happening with friends and family.

Final Thoughts about How to Effectively Communicate With Senior Adults

Regardless of if you’re caring for your aging parent in their household or if they are aging in place with a senior care provider, it is critical that you learn how to communicate effectively with them. In addition to experiencing frustration about their new circumstances, they are going to be feeling helpless and worrisome about losing their independence. It is up to you to put those worries to rest, help them work through their frustrations, and assist them in navigating through their new routines.

Additional Resources:

Family Caregiver Alliance -

National Council for Aging Care -

National Institute on Aging -

NewLeaf Home Medical -

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