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Importance of Communication When Caring for the Elderly

Good communication with elderly patients is important for caregivers and healthcare providers. Older patients have unique needs, and communicating with them can be challenging, but there are a number of recommendations to help nurses and other healthcare providers. Nurses have regular, direct contact with patients, so they can benefit from developing specialized communication skills.

Why Effective Communication With Elderly Patients Is Important

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, more elderly patients are entering our nation’s healthcare system. Americans 65 and older will comprise 20 percent of the nation’s population by 2030, according to “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health” report by the Institute of Medicine (National Academy of Medicine [NAM] as of 2015). The United States Census Bureau projects that this group will outnumber the under-18 population by 2056.

As a group, older patients use more healthcare resources than other groups do, according to Merck Manual. “Improving Communication with Older Patients: Tips from the Literature,” an article in Family Practice Management, reports that this group visits their doctors an average of eight times per year, compared to the general population’s average of five visits per year.

The authors of the Family Practice Management article go on to say that poor communication can undermine efforts when caring for the elderly. Failure to adequately communicate with elderly patients about proper nutrition, for instance, can have dire consequences. According to Michael Henning, writing for Lippincott NursingCenter, diet affects patient outcomes during illness and recovery, especially for the elderly, who are often at risk for malnutrition.

How We Can Get Better at Communicating with These Patients

The authors of the Family Practice Management article admit that communication is not an exact science and that strategies differ according to patient needs and staff dynamics. They offer guidelines that can be useful when dealing with geriatric patients:

  • Schedule older patients earlier in the day. It is easier to spend more time with elderly patients when they are less tired and the office is quieter.
  • Make them feel welcome. This may include greeting them warmly, introducing yourself by name and making them feel important. Conversely, take time to walk the patient to the checkout desk after the appointment, thank them for their visit and say goodbye.
  • Create a comfortable environment for them. Seat them in a quiet, comfortable area, and pay attention to office lighting.

Preston Ni, writing for Psychology Today, notes that patience and compassion are often necessary when caring for elderly people. Seniors want to feel relevant and respected, and they value their independence. Asking questions instead of making assumptions or giving orders can help validate them.

Another consideration is hearing loss, which can create additional challenges. According to Michael M. McKee in “Caring for Older Patients Who Have Significant Hearing Loss,” elderly patients who are deaf or hard of hearing are at a high risk of gaps in healthcare communication. To reduce this risk, McKee suggests that clinicians be aware of patients’ specific communication needs. One way to help staff is to place an easily recognizable sign or flag in the patient’s medical records as a reminder.

There are more elderly patients in the health care system than any other age group, and this trend will continue. An important aspect of caring for the elderly includes learning to communicate effectively with them. Nurses often have the most direct care with patients, so they would benefit by strengthening communication skills.

The online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) program at Purdue University Northwest helps nurses improve communication with elderly patients. In particular, (NUR 39700), Nursing Care of the Aged, Disabled and Chronically Ill, focuses on the basic needs of older and chronically ill populations. Students learn the tenets of health promotion, health restoration and palliation.

Learn more about the Purdue Northwest online RN to BSN program.


Retrieved from The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health. (2010, October 5).

Retrieved from U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a Slower Growing, Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now. (2012, December 12).

Retrieved from Merck Manuals. (n.d.).

Retrieved from Improving Communication With Older Patients: Tips From the Literature. (n.d.).

Retrieved from Henning, Michael, MSN, RN, ANP-C. (2009, September). Nursing’s Role in Nutrition.

Retrieved from Ni, Preston, MSBA. (2014, November 16). How to Communicate Effectively with Older Adults.

Retrieved from McKee, Michael, MD, MPH. (2013, March 1). Caring for Older Patients Who Have Significant Hearing Loss.

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