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Talking with Your Older Patient

Effective Communication in Caring for Older Adults

Good communication is an important part of the healing process. Effective doctor-patient communication has research-proven benefits: Patients are more likely to adhere to treatment and have better outcomes, they express greater satisfaction with their treatment, and they are less likely to file malpractice suits.Older woman communicating with her doctor

Studies show that good communication is a teachable skill. Medical students who receive communication training improve dramatically in talking with, assessing, and building relationships with patients. Time management skills also improve.

Interpersonal communication skills are considered so important that they are a core competency identified by the Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education and the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Learning—and using—effective communication techniques may help you build more satisfying relationships with older patients and become even more skilled at managing their care.

Special Communication Needs

With older patients, communication can involve special issues. For example:

What to Expect from This Resource

This article is intended for use by a range of professionals who work directly with patients—physicians, physicians-in-training, nurse practitioners, nurses, physician assistants, and other healthcare professionals. The aim is to introduce and/or reinforce communication skills essential in caring for older patients and working with their families.

This and other articles offers practical techniques and approaches that can help with diagnosis, promote treatment adherence, make more efficient use of clinicians' time, and increase patient and provider satisfaction.

What to Remember

Three points are important to remember:

  • Stereotypes about aging and old age can lead patients and healthcare professionals alike to dismiss or minimize problems as an inevitable decline of aging. What we're learning from research is that aging alone does not cause illness nor does it automatically mean having to live with pain and discomfort.
  • Many of this resource's suggestions may appear at first glance to be time-consuming; however, an initial investment of time can lead to long-term gains for clinicians. You may get to know your patient's life history over the course of several visits rather than trying to get it all in one session, for example.
  • Older patients are not all the same. You may see frail 60-year-olds and relatively healthy 80-year-olds. Your patients probably are culturally diverse, with varying socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. Some are quite active, while others may be sedentary. The techniques offered here encourage you to view all older people as individuals who have a wide range of healthcare needs and questions.

For More Information About Effective Communication 

American Geriatrics Society
1-800-247-4779 (toll-free)

American Society on Aging
1-800-537-9728 (email form)

Gerontological Society of America