Aging population calls for improved doctor-elderly communication

Gerontological Society of America publishes new guidelines for communicating with older patients
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By 2030, nearly one in five patients will be age 65 or older--a demographic group that not only makes up nearly double the amount of doctor visits as their younger counterparts, but also poses unique communication challenges for doctors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about two-thirds of older people are unable to understand the information given to them about their prescription medications, American Medical News reported. To help physicians, nurses and other health professionals, the Gerontological Society of America recently published a guide for communicating with older adults.

The report provides 29 specific recommendations for improving interactions with older adults, including tips for communicating with adults with dementia. "The report is based in the scientific literature, yet the contributors created something extremely accessible," Jake Harwood, head of the Advisory Board that crafted the report, said in a statement.

While physicians should be cognizant to avoid stereotyping older patients, according to experts, it's important to find out whether a patient has any cognitive impairments, poor health literacy or difficulties with hearing or eyesight. With these considerations in mind, physicians should use the following best practices when communicating with older adults:

  • Speak slowly and face older patients when speaking to them. Ensure the room has good lighting and minimal background noise.
  • Use clear, actionable language with limited jargon, and verify the listener has met specific goals for comprehension.
  • Reinforce directions with pictures and simple written materials.
  • Avoid speech that could be patronizing or disrespectful.
  • Be an active listener, paying attention to patients' eye gazes and gestures. Take a guess at what a person might be trying to tell you (e.g., Are you talking about this medication causing a problem? Tell me more.).
  • Allow patients extra time to respond to your questions.

To learn more:
- read the article from American Medical News
- purchase the guide from the Gerontological Society of America
- see the statement from the Gerontological Society of America
- see the advice from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

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