How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Communicating with Older Adults

Aug 1, 2020

Adults aged 65 years and older are a significant and ever-increasing percentage of the population. Collectively, they are a remarkably diverse group as people in their mid-60s are apt to have far different needs and abilities than those who are two, three, or more decades older. Individually, older adults of course can differ even more. Here are some how-to tips to help make sure that your environment is conducive to learning and communication.

  • Provide an environment that helps people see. Post large, readable signs that clearly inform people where they are. Provide well-lit rooms, halls, and quiet spaces in which to meet and talk. Don’t rely just on color to help people get from place to place, as color-coded arrows may be of no use to people who are color-blind or visually impaired.
  • Speak in ways people can hear. Speak slowly, clearly, and concisely, and introduce just one new concept at a time. Use everyday language with words that older adults know and are comfortable with. Throughout your conversation, pause periodically for the patient’s questions and to confirm understanding.
  • Make sure written information is readable. Informally assess the patient’s reading skills by paying attention to clues of literacy problems, such as when people repeatedly “forget” their eyeglasses. Write printed information in plain language and include pictures and examples that older adults can relate to and understand.
  • Provide multiple ways for people to learn. Show, not just tell, people about health information. For example, supplement spoken and written information with videos or demonstrations using real objects or simulated models. You might also share stories—yours or theirs—to help them connect with information in a more personal way.
  • Help patients participate. Encourage older patients to bring lists of their concerns and questions to appointments. When you meet, discuss goals and their confidence in managing illness. Periodically ask for questions, but be sensitive to the fact that many older adults were brought up to not question those in authority and may be uncomfortable or unwilling to do so.
  • Verify understanding. Regardless of age, make sure that patients understand the information you are communicating. You can do this with the teach-back technique, asking relevant and specific open-ended questions. For example, you might say, “Some people get dizzy after they take this medicine. If that happens, what will you do?”

Pair this how-to tip with Helen Osborne’s other resources: