Communicating with the elderly (especially those receiving end-of-life care or who may have lost partial or full usage of their faculties, hearing, or speaking capabilities) requires special skills and intentionality. Training for this type of communication is not always readily available to staff working with elderly patients. Medical professionals of all roles should pursue training to prepare them for important tasks such as communicating with the elderly and with their families and caretakers.
Benefits of Effective Communication with Seniors
There are a number of reasons to train medical staff to effectively communicate with senior and elderly patients. Studies have indicated that better communication techniques in settings where nurses work with older patients, such as nursing homes, leads to higher life satisfaction and quality of life ratings and a decrease in depression and aggression rates for patients. Not only do improved communication techniques benefit patients, but it has been indicated that implementing improved communication skills help the caretaker as well.
Tips for Effective Communication
Utilize these tips when communicating with elderly charges to improve the outcomes and quality of your interactions:
- Exercise patience. Time is a huge consideration when conversing with the elderly. Because they may need additional clarification, may be hard of hearing, may be stressed or confused at the time of the conversation, or may be inhibited by other factors unique to their age, elderly patients may require more time to complete a conversation than other patients. Similarly, patience must be exerted in conversations with caretakers and family members as well. Because elderly patient care may often involve or cause drastic life changes in the lives of not only the patient but their caretakers and families, special care should be taken when communicating things that are not easy to hear. Health care professionals are often perceived as having poor bedside manner and might come across as gruff or curt when sharing unpleasant or tragic news with patients and families without proper communication training. As a health care professional, nursing older people can require communicating updates with extra patience and compassion so that those hearing the news can process it fully.
- Explain clearly. Many factors come into play that make explaining results and treatment options a bit more difficult to elderly patients. Hearing loss, dementia, generational differences that affect the patient’s understanding of the role of treatment or medicine, despondency, and a host of other factors can impede an elderly patient’s ability to grasp what a younger patient might understand at once. The key to communicating well is patience, and the key to communicating effectively is clear explanation. Medical jargon may or may not be helpful when describing a test result or treatment option. Perhaps a different route should be taken to make sure the patient understands the important points of their condition or the proposed or pending treatment.
- Involve family members. Studies conducted both in the United States and in other developed countries such as England indicate that despite the advantages of involving family members in treatment decision-making, formal measures to involve a patient’s family members and caretakers in the treatment and decision-making process are still atypical in health care settings. Family members can often provide a vital cog in the communication process with any patient, and the effect is often magnified in the case of elderly patients. Family members can provide familiarity, different ways of communicating concepts that the patient may better understand, and can help make decisions when the patient may be confused or uncertain. Family members should be involved in the communication process as much as possible.
Effects of Communication Improvement on Overall Quality of Care
Training nurses and other medical professionals in effective communication practices can impact a wide spectrum of the facets of patient care and treatment. First, it helps the patient. Receiving better communication helps raise his or her quality of life and treatment satisfaction. Second, it benefits caretakers and families by raising their confidence in the health care received by their family member or charge, and by allowing them to be more involved in the treatment process. Third, it helps all involved medical personnel by giving them tools to manage their own distress when engaged in difficult or trying conversations and also allows them to more effectively relate to their patients. Finally, good communication skills can be applied not only to elderly patients but to all patients and families with whom the health care professional will converse. Communication may be a challenge with elderly patients, but can be difficult with patients from all walks of life. Communication training can benefit everyone.
Nursing older people can be a difficult task because of the inherent changes, imminence of death, and the emotionally trying nature of many of the situations that arise during their care. For elderly patients and their caretakers, working with health care professionals trained in effective communication practices can make a profound difference in the treatment and/or care process and can tremendously improve the quality of the experience.
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