Communicating with Older Adults

by Cheryl Hall on February 15th, 2019

If you work with older adults you know that communication can be a challenge due to health conditions, declining vision, hearing or cognitive function, and life experiences. To make your visit productive and positive, incorporate the following strategies to enhance communication.

Say Hello: Take the time to greet your patient by name and to introduce yourself and your role in their healthcare. Even if it seems redundant, patients in the midst of a health crisis see so many providers it doesn’t hurt to repeat an introduction.

Minimize Distractions: Adjust the environment to minimize visual distractions and noise. Make sure the lighting is adequate without shadows or glare. Ask if the patient is comfortable and ready for the visit.

Have a Dialogue: Sit face to face, make eye contact and listen to the patient. Unless a patient understands what you are trying to convey, they will not benefit fully from occupational therapy, so explain how each occupational therapy strategy ties directly to their goals in simple, clear language. A patient should never wonder why they are doing something, but always understand the purpose. Ask the patient to repeat their understanding of the day’s goals.

One Step at a Time: Now that you and the patient have reached common ground in terms of their needs and the plan for the visit, break the session into individual steps. Reiterate how each step is helping with one of their goals. After completing a step together, ask the patient to demonstrate the step on their own. Observe carefully, watching for any misinterpretation of the instructions. Don’t be tempted to rush through routine instructions. They may be routine to you, but it may be the first time a patient is hearing the information so slow down.

Provide Reinforcement: Take time throughout the visit to repeat the goals verbally. In addition, provide written instructions and review each handout with the patient. Illustrated handouts written in simple language are the most effective. All 354 handouts in the Occupational Therapy Toolkit are fully illustrated and fall between a 3rd and 5th grade reading level.

Time for Questions: Once you have provided verbal instructions, demonstrations and written material, ask your patient for their questions. Be patient and quiet allowing the patient to consider all that they have been given. If they can’t articulate a question, prompt them with reminders of the visit’s highlights.

Include Caregivers: All opportunities to communicate with a caregiver should be maximized. Make every effort to identify caregivers and loop them into your scheduled appointments. If they can‘t be present, leave a copy of the written instructions for them as well as your contact information.

Cheryl Hall, OT
Author and Illustrator, Occupational Therapy Toolkit

  • About Me

    Cheryl Hall
    Occupational Therapist
    Maryland, United States

    Welcome to a site devoted to sharing experience, knowledge and resources to make your job of being a great therapist a lot easier.

    I have been an occupational therapist for more than 30 years. I graduated from San Jose State University with degrees in Occupational Therapy, Gerontology, and Early Child Development. My passion is working with adults and children in home health but I have also worked in rehab, sub-acute rehab, hand therapy, transitional living for TBI, and hospital-based outpatient settings.

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