Communicate Compassionately with Older Adults

Feb. 1, 2016

Many older adults experience changes in hearing, vision, energy, voice, or cognition that make communication challenging. If we realize we are losing patience when communicating with an older adult, enhancing our empathic skills can help us get past those moments of frustration. Empathy is being aware of and sensitive to another person’s emotions—vicariously experiencing and understanding those feelings. However, a step beyond empathy is compassion. Compassion is the desire to take action to alleviate another person’s discomfort or sadness. This involves taking the focus off ourselves and what we think is best, to considering ways to help based on the needs and wants of the other person.  Compassionate communication is about careful listening and conversing to learn how to meet the needs of others.    

Compassionate communication helps older adults freely express their thoughts and feelings. Try these tips:

  • When speaking to an older adult, don’t multitask.  It makes it hard for either person to pay attention to the conversation.
  • Try to reduce any background noise and look directly at them while talking.
  • Be curious and ask questions. 
  • Watch for facial and body cues that can reveal how someone is feeling. 
  • Listen to more than just the spoken words.   A person’s tone of voice can be very revealing. 
  • Use short sentences and talk about only one topic at a time.
  • It might be helpful to stick to familiar subjects.
  • We all love to share stories and reminisce, so don’t rush your conversations.
  • Learn to become comfortable with long pauses and silence. Give the older adult time to connect with you.

Fortunately, compassion is a two-way street and even the smallest act of caring for someone else can give us great personal satisfaction and happiness. The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Compassionate communication takes time and practice, but it is well worth the effort!

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