By: Judi Brownell
The home tends to be the place where you let down your defenses and take out your frustrations, where your most intense emotions are expressed—a place where listening becomes particularly important. Did you realize that you can have a positive influence on your family environment simply by focusing on your listening skills? When you listen, you demonstrate both caring and a commitment to problem-solving. Through your willingness to listen, you demonstrate to loved ones that you care about them and about your relationship.
Today, an increasing number of households have opened their home to an older adult. With two, or often three, generations under one roof, the number of potential conflicts and misunderstandings is multiplied. There is, as you might guess, no magic solution for such complexity. Human relations are dynamic, constantly changing forces that require your continuing attention and nurturing. The key is to never think of yourself as a passive victim of your family’s challenging dynamics. By changing your behavior, you have the potential to make a significant positive impact on the way your family members listen and interact. Here we discuss the challenges of listening to older adults and provide some suggestions for how to listen more effectively to seniors. Continuous listening is difficult, sometimes exhausting, but it is absolutely essential and has tremendous benefits for everyone.
People are living longer. Those over 65 comprise one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population. Many families are opting to bring their elderly parents into their homes to become part of an extended family. This arrangement creates a new set of challenges because new role relationships need to be established, new habits formed, and new interaction patterns facilitated.
Listening to older adults is not always easy. Their speech is slower paced, their thoughts may be less well-organized, and their conversation is sprinkled with redundancies. Older adults also have more trouble multi-tasking, which disadvantages them in an environment where mediated communication often requires attention to several tasks simultaneously and where everyone around them seems to be in a hurry. As a consequence of the aging process, many people lose their mental flexibility; they have difficulty organizing incoming information as quickly as younger adults. These speech processing difficulties affect their memory as well.
There are numerous ways in which you can support an older adult who is struggling with memory loss. You might first consider whether there are any psychological factors such as anxiety, depression, medication side effects, or poor nutrition that might contribute to this condition. A traumatic life event can also leave an older adult confused and forgetful and in need of someone to listen.
In addition to memory challenges, poor hearing also has a significant effect on an older person’s listening processes. Millions of Americans over the age of 65 have some form of hearing loss. Keep in mind that hearing loss is not just a biological condition. Psychological and social processes are also affected and have an equally significant impact on the individual and her relationships. It is also common for people to ignore or deny having a hearing impairment. Such reactions lead to continuing communication problems, lost productivity, lowered self-esteem, and depression.
Through the simple act of listening you can help the seniors in your life to keep the sense of control and confidence that will allow them to feel more comfortable in social situations and more connected to other family members. Your conversations can also provide mental stimulation and foster continuing interest in the world. You can help the older adult to reduce the anxiety that comes with uncertainty and change.
Recently, researchers have discovered that storytelling enables seniors to feel cared for and connected. One author suggests an activity called Listen to a Life, where intergenerational listening takes place in the context of sharing stories and finding connections among experiences in the past and present. When you listen to an older adult’s stories, it increases their sense of identity and decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation. These narratives also build mutual trust and genuine emotional connections.
Regardless of the specific circumstances or the strategies you currently apply, the listening needs of seniors make communicating with them a special challenge. Listening to older adults, however, is a win-win situation. Your attention enriches their lives while, at the same time, learning about their life experiences provides you with new insights and appreciation. If you interact regularly with an older person, the following skills may help to improve your relationship.
The Skills of Listening Across Generations
- Recognize that talking to an elderly person may take more time. If you need an answer in a hurry, try asking “closed” rather than “open” questions, or design your queries in an either-or format. You cannot expect a quick response to a question such as “What would you like to do tonight?” Asking a more direct question such as “Would you like to take a ride after lunch?” or “Would you like to take a ride after lunch, or would you prefer to look for that book you were talking about?” is less stressful for them and provides you with more concrete information.
- As an older person begins to participate less in the mainstream of family life it is often necessary for you to focus her attention before speaking to her. Using her name, for example, or standing in front of her when you speak will let her know that she will be involved in the next encounter.
- Let the older person know that she is important. Rather than shouting a question from across the room, stand next to the person whenever you can. Folks who have trouble hearing will appreciate the ability to see you as you speak with them.
- Don’t be reluctant to verbalize your feelings. Let an elderly person know that you love them, but also speak up calmly if you feel he or she is violating your rights or deliberately taking advantage of you.
- Ask questions. Take the time to be interested in what an older person is doing and thinking. Put yourself in the role of the listener as much of the time as possible. Share when it seems appropriate, but otherwise develop the attitude that you will gain more by listening than by speaking.
- Provide support. Recognize the older person’s accomplishments and reinforce the little things that she does. Help her to feel loved and a valued member of the family by allowing her to share in family chores and pleasures.
Memory: Three Common Challenges of Aging
- Concentration is more difficult. Distractions have a stronger impact as individuals age. Consequently, it may be important for both communicators to seek situations where distractions can be minimized.
- Recall takes more time and requires a greater number of memory cues. All information processing systems work more slowly as a person ages. It takes more time for information to be stored and retrieved. In order to recall information, older people require more memory cues or bits of related information that help them remember a particular item.
- Memorization strategies become more difficult to use as people age. If information is not stored properly, it will never be as readily available as if appropriate memory strategies were used at the time the information was received. The more slowly information is received, the more likely it will be that older individuals can apply techniques that will make recall easier.
Judi is Compass Care’s Director of Hospitality and Client Care and a Professor of Organizational Communication in the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University Johnson College of Business. She was previously president of the International Listening Association and developed training programs for hospital staff in customer service.