In European countries like Germany and Poland, more than a quarter of the population is aged 60 and older. And their numbers are rising: by 2050, we can expect that up to 38% of Europeans will be 60 or older.
This means that the entire healthcare system is facing an important mission: taking care of more and more people with heart disease, cognitive decline, chronic pain, coordination problems and other health issues that are more frequent in older patients. The art of communication with seniors is becoming an essential skill for every healthcare provider, especially for physical therapy specialists.
We’ve collected 25 tips on effective communication with the elderly to make your work with seniors more effective and less stressful.
1. Use the proper form of address
Older patients may be used to more formal terms of address. So even if you’ve got a habit of calling your patients by their first names, try to be more respectful towards elderly patients and address them in a more formal way. If they’re OK with a more relaxed form of address (like being called by their first name), they’ll tell you.
2. Build rapport with patients and show empathy
When meeting a patient, remember that you might end up working with this person for many months, so do your best to build a relationship based on genuine respect and empathy. It might take some effort to win the trust of a patient who’s much older than you or is prejudiced against medical professionals, but the effort will pay off.
3. Be patient and allow extra time for older patients
Many older patients experience hearing loss, mobility issues, cognitive decline, slower information processing, or some combination thereof. Their conversations may also be less focused than those of younger people.
However, they’re sure to feel your annoyance and they might even refuse to cooperate with you. In an ideal world, you would intentionally schedule more time for older patients. Since this is usually impossible.
4. Reduce visual and auditory distractions
Try to give your undivided attention to every patient – and make sure your patients pay attention to you as well. To help you and your patients stay focused on each other, reduce any visual and auditory distractions in your office (people passing by, background noise etc).
5. Maintain eye contact
Do your best to face the patient directly and maintain eye contact. People with hearing loss often rely on lip-reading and interpreting facial expressions to understand what’s being said.
6. Use positive body language
Try using body language that signals empathy and respect – practice in front of a mirror if necessary. Avoid body language that creates unnecessary communication barriers.
7. Use active listening skills
Patients tend to be more compliant when they feel the therapist is genuinely curious about them and understands them. To achieve this effect, use active listening skills like paraphrasing, asking thoughtful questions, or helping label the other person’s emotions.
Here are a few phrases to keep in your repertoire that actively construct and enhance your relationship, drive commitment, and build trust:
“Wow! That’s incredible! Tell me about it!”
“That had to make you feel wonderful today!”
“That’s fantastic! How did that make you feel?”
“I am so proud of your accomplishment! How do you feel about it?”
8. Avoid interrupting the patient
The #1 patient complaint about medical professionals is that “they don’t listen”. Many patients feel the need to share personal experiences and other details – and you should do your best to listen carefully.
In addition to establishing a better relationship with the patient, you might learn some useful details about their life and personality that will help you adjust the treatment to their needs.
9. Don’t criticize
You can’t change someone’s behavior by being judgemental towards them. So instead of criticizing your patient, try behavior modification techniques like motivational interviewing. This is especially important in communication with seniors who don’t want to be bossed around by a (probably much younger) therapist.
10. Pay attention to nonverbal signals
Sometimes patients will be reluctant to talk openly, but their body language will reveal a lot. Observe it carefully.
11. Use “I” instead of “you” language
Statements like “You must exercise every day” sound bossy, and no one likes being ordered around. To avoid this effect while still sounding like an authority, opt for statements that start with “I”, for example, “I’ll help you exercise every day”. This is an important aspect of successful therapeutic communication.
12. Speak slowly, clearly and loudly
As we’ve already mentioned, older people may absorb information at a slower pace than young people do. This is why it’s a good idea to speak slower and louder than usual (don’t scream, however). Try articulating very clearly, too, so that you have better chances of being heard.
13. Use short, simple words and sentences
In continuation of the previous tip: use short, simple words and sentences to ensure that you’re understood correctly.
14. Avoid medical jargon
Don’t assume that your patient has any knowledge of medical jargon. Use words that someone with zero knowledge of medicine would understand and be ready to explain everything once again if something remains unclear.
15. Talk about one topic at a time
It may be tempting to talk about every aspect of the treatment at once, but doing so is very likely to confuse an older person. So if someone comes to your office with back and knee pain, you can talk about the knee first, then about the back, and then about the exercise program you’re about to prescribe.
16. Rephrase, don’t repeat
Repeating the same things over and over again is annoying and doesn’t bring any additional clarity into the conversation. So if you need to make a point once again, express it with different words.
17. Summarize the most important points
When explaining something to your patients, ask them to summarize what you’ve just said. This will help you spot any misunderstandings immediately.
Of course, try to avoid sounding like a schoolteacher who’s trying to catch an inattentive student.
18. Give the patient a chance to ask questions
Always plan some time for questions and answers, and be genuinely curious about the questions. They can provide you with extra information or indicate a misunderstanding – and taking the time to answer them will help the patient feel understood and respected.
19. Make older patients feel comfortable
Physical comfort is an important part of the overall patient experience. Make sure that the furniture in your office is safe and ergonomic, there’s enough light and it’s neither too cold or too warm. Consider offering your patients a glass of water to make them feel even more comfortable.
20. Write down take-away instructions
It’s important to give your patients a written note or a chart that they can take home to read in a quiet environment. Otherwise, key information might get forgotten – and this can happen to any patient, not just a senior struggling with memory loss.
21. Use charts, models and pictures to illustrate your message
Visual materials are invaluable when dealing with older patients. First, they cater to the needs of visual learners. Second, they’re usually easier to remember than spoken words. Third, it’s usually possible to photocopy them for your patients.
22. Make signs, forms and brochures easy to read
Make sure that your office is well-lit and all of your forms and brochures are printed in large font. Many older people are nearsighted and trying to read small print under a flickering lamp can be outright frustrating.
23. Give your patient a choice when possible
For many people, ageing is associated with a loss of personal autonomy. This is why it’s important to help your elderly patients feel in control of their bodies and their routines. Let them set their own rehabilitation goals (with your help, of course). Let them choose between two exercises. Even the smallest choice will help them feel more independent.
24. End the visit on a positive note
Pessimism doesn’t contribute to the success of medical treatments. End the appointment on a positive note and try to instill confidence in your patient.
25. Make digital follow-ups with your instructions
83% of seniors between 64–74 years of age use the internet at least weekly, so you can stay in touch with them via email or the physical therapy software you’re using (Raccoon.Recovery, for example, lets you make video calls and add personal notes to each exercise).
Applying the above tips will help you improve your communication with senior patients. If you feel the need to enroll in an active listening course or work on other soft skills, by all means do so – the investment will pay off!