Heath and Aging

Talking With Your Older Patient: A Clinician's Handbook

Effective Communication for Effective Care

older woman with her doctor, looking at a prescription bottleGood 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.

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:

With such questions in mind, the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, developed Talking With Your Older Patient: A Clinician's Handbook.

What to Expect from this Resource

This resource 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 resource 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 on working with older patients, contact:

American Geriatrics Society

AGS has programs in patient care, research, professional and public education, and public policy.

American Society on Aging
1-800-537-9728 (toll-free)
www.asaging.org/form/contact-us (email form)

ASA offers professional education, publications, and online information and training resources.

Gerontological Society of America

GSA is a nonprofit professional organization whose members include researchers, educators, practitioners, and policymakers.

National Institute on Aging
1-800-222-2225 (toll-free)
1-800-222-4225 (TTY/toll-free)

NIA funds research on the science of aging and provides information and materials for the public and professionals. It is the lead Federal agency for Alzheimer's disease research.


This senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine has health and wellness information for older adults.

Publication Date: April 2016
Page Last Updated: April 6, 2016