Health communication is often a challenge. There can be new terms for patients to learn, numbers to understand, and hard choices to make about treatment and care. When a person has mild memory loss or other cognitive challenge, communication that was already difficult may now be even harder. Here are some tips to help:
- Consider why that person seems to be having memory problems. Memory loss and cognitive problems can be ongoing and worsening, such as caused by dementia. Or these problems may be temporary such as due to medication, illness, or anxiety. It helps to take time and consider why these problems are happening now.
- Connect new pieces of information to old. It is often easier to remember new information when linked to something familiar. One way to help is with a metaphor or analogy. For instance, you might explain an aneurysm by comparing it to a leaky hose. But that metaphor only works when the other person is familiar with a hose, such as by using it to water their garden.
- Chunk information. Most people can only remember about 3-5 new pieces of information at a time. You can help by “chunking” new information into several short segments rather than one long list. For instance, when recommending high-fiber foods you might present these in terms of breakfast, dinner, and snacks.
- Use teach-back to confirm understanding. Teach-back is a technique in which patients are asked to periodically explain key points just discussed. It helps to use this technique a few times during the appointment and again at the end. This offers an opportunity to clarify issues that the patient may have missed, misunderstood, or forgotten.
- Write down important information. Most people can better remember spoken information when they have a written, visual, or even audio (recorded) reminder. You can help by giving the patient an easy-to-understand written summary or an illustration that is clearly labeled with key points just discussed.
- Encourage patients to invite a family member or friend to be with them at the appointment. This way, they have a second set of “eyes and ears” to listen, remember, and discuss all that was communicated.
To Learn More:
- This How-To Tip is adapted from the chapter “Know Your Audience: Emotions, Cognition, and Behavioral Health” in Helen Osborne’s book, Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Third Edition (2022).
- “Elderspeak (HLOL #182),” a Health Literacy Out Loud podcast interview with Anna I Corwin, PhD.
- “Older Adults, Brain Changes, and Health Understanding (HLOL #163),” a Health Literacy Out Loud podcast interview with Mark Hochhauser, PhD.
- “Teach-back (HLOL #129),” a Health Literacy Out Loud podcast interview with Dean Schillinger, MD.