Saturday, January 14, 2006

communicating with the elderly

Nearly all individuals experience some degree of sensory loss as they age, whether it be in taste, touch, sight, hearing, or sensitivity to pain (pain threshold). Of these diminished senses, the loss of hearing is very common in later life. It stands next to arthritis as a chronic condition (90 percent of the U.S. population experiences some degree of joint degeneration by the age of 40). About 30 percent of the population over age 65 has a hearing impairment, with males, at about 34 percent, leading females, at about 25 percent. While hearing aids and training can do much to alleviate hearing difficulties, they do not always eliminate them. Nor do aids overcome other problems that can affect communication-problems of poor eyesight; the speed of speech that an older person can comprehend; difficulty in distinguishing tones; weakened power to transmit messages by speech; and physical weakness following illness.
Awareness that the older person may experience a variety of communication problems can do much to improve family and personal relationships. Simple measures often help, as by turning down the radio or TV during conversation, standing before the person or leaning close when talking, slowing down one's rate of speech, and enunciating carefully and clearly.
Raising one's voice can help also, but this practice requires good judgment because older people who may be quite deaf to high tones can often hear deep tones perfectly clearly. Under such circumstances loud shouting should be replaced with a deeper voice pitch, which will avoid a sharp reprimand from the older person-"Stop shouting at me! I'm not deaf!" Some individuals shout at old people because the old tend to respond slowly.
This impulse should be curbed because the slow response may not be due to deafness but to the slower rate at which the elderly process and respond to information mentally. Planning conversational topics before visits can help, especially so if an older person is disoriented or senile. It is also well to focus conversation on routine subjects-the time of day, the day of the week, the weather, and doings and visits of friends and family members. Nor is there any need to feel discomfort over gaps or even long conversational silences; sometimes just sitting quietly by or gently touching an older person are the best forms of communication.
See also CORRESPONDENCE; REALITY ORIENTATION; VISITING, TO HOMEBOUND AND INSTITUTIONALIZED ELDERLY.
Gillies, J. A Guide to Caring for and Coping with Aging Parents. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1981.

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