Issues on Aging: Communication Keys

Doug Sheaffer

Periodically, someone will call or email me, or come-up to me at one gathering or another, and comment on this column. It usually generates other questions and before you know it we're having a conversation.

It's sometimes referred to as communication. Most of us participate in this activity on a daily basis--though it's good to remember that actual communication requires both speaking and listening.

And most of the time, it's pretty much automatic--until it isn't. Life events can sometimes impact the dynamic and new ways to make it happen need to be found.

People with hearing difficulties (with or without hearing aids) know what we're talking about, as do those who are trying to have a conversation with them Our first impulse to talk LOUDER, which often helps. Another good idea is to face the person directly so lip movement and facial expressions can be seen. We truly communicate in a variety of non-verbal ways.

Another dynamic occurs when people experience dementia of some kind, be it a temporary situation or with Alzheimer's. This scenario involves more than just speaking concisely or with more volume due to the cognitive difficulties.

And frustration is a very common enemy in this situation. Frustration on the part of the person with dementia and frustration on the part of the caregiver--be it family, Doctors, or other people in their world. We want to help and that's a good thing; but does it really help to try to finish sentences for someone else? Or to constantly re-orient them when they mis-identify something?

Which is more important, that the dog's name is Horatio, not Spot, or to let the person express whatever they're thinking and/or want? The flip-side of frustration in this is patience--which I know from personal experience is much easier talked about than practiced.

For now, let's just take a look at a few helpful tips garnered from a variety of venues where people who have been there found out what worked:

  • Limit any background noise. Combinations of various sounds are at the least distracting.
  • It may be helpful to speak in smaller sentences, and/or ask questions that only need short responses
  • What kind of expressions or gestures are being used? Good cues to help clarify what's being said.
  • Please, please avoid lapsing into baby-talk. Not only is it demeaning, but it really doesn't help
  • Don't look to win an argument, look to understand what they're trying to communicate
  • Repetition may seem tedious, but it's possible that each time the same question is asked, it feels like the first time for the person struggling.
  • And, mentioned earlier, PATIENCE.

Understandably, this is not an all-inclusive list, and if you've been in this situation as a caregiver, you undoubtedly have found a few things that work well for you. Be creative.

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