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Communication Tips with Older Adults

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We often find it challenging to communicate with older adults. Have you ever considered their perspectives? Drawing on significant input from elderly individuals, we often hear them feel patronized or underestimated. We frequently make this mistake, and it’s important to understand how to avoid it and challenge ourselves to adapt to the difficulties.


“They are getting old, so we must speak to them differently.” A common mistake we might not realize is the “Elderspeak” pattern. It resembles baby talk, a high-pitched voice, or exaggerated prosody. For example, we might use “sweetie” or “dear.” This can distort speech elements, make communication impaired, come across as condescending, and express pity, which many seniors reported feeling resentment. Speak to them as a fellow adult without changing to a kid’s words.


“They can’t hear, so we must speak louder.” Do not assume all older adults have hearing problems. Enunciate well and speak at your normal volume. If they ask you to repeat something you said, do not think it is a request to yell it out. Be more sensitive to their changes. You can also help with thoughtful gestures to make the transition easier and faster. For example, ensure they can see your lips clearly when you talk to them.

My grandmother, who had perfect hearing, mildly scolded me: “I ask you to repeat yourself. You don’t need to start talking louder. I can hear fine, but just like you miss words sometimes or are not paying attention, so do I.”


“They are getting old, so we invalidate their feelings and experiences.” Know the difference between being patronizing and accommodating towards older adults. Nancy, at 87 years old, shared her experience at the doctor’s office: “I was in the room with my son, and the care provider said to him, How is Mrs. Smith doing today? And what can you tell me what’s going on? Please talk to me and ask me directly.  I am still capable of answering to explain my health.”

Background and competing noises, such as fans, music, TV, or computers, can significantly distract older adults. Be patient and compassionate, and understand that they need longer to do things. Rushing them can increase their anxiety about adapting to your expectations and create conflicts.

Consider their abilities and make sure you support them. The restaurant’s lighting is low, and your grandfather has difficulty reading the menu. Use the smartphone torch feature or tell him verbally about the menu items.

“They have memory issues, so we do not adapt to changes.” If the person’s working memory is not as good as it used to be, break it down into a single sentence. Speak one thought at a time. 

Remember to ask specific questions rather than open-ended ones when making choices. For example, asking, “Would you like to wear this blue shirt or this grey one?” instead of “What would you like to wear?” helps narrow the options. 

Some people may find visual aids helpful. Pictures, photos, and diagrams help clarify and reinforce the key points you want to communicate.

We often forget that older people are like us—they have thoughts, feelings, and desires. We should treat them with the same respect and kindness that we would want for ourselves. How would you feel if you now have an older body and someone treated you differently? Recognize what older adults need and consider adjusting your support to improve relationships and communication.

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