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Understanding How To Provide Care To Elderly Patients


How to work with elderly patientsThe number of Americans over the age of 65 is projected to double, from 46 million today to over 98 million by 2060, which will make up almost 24 percent of the population.

Yes, you read those numbers right!

In all branches of healthcare, and because we’re living longer on average as a society, a significant group of your patients will be elderly. Each generation has specific needs, and our elders are no different. A thoughtful, compassionate approach helps develop a real relationship and trust between patients and care providers. And when patients feel that their provider understands them, outcomes improve a lot.

Since there is no doubt you will work with older patients at some time during your career, here are a few tips to help smooth communication and provide the best care possible to older generations.

Related resource: Tips for Being Empathetic When Providing Care

Elderly and hearing loss

You’d be grouchy too if everyone around you was talking and laughing, but you couldn’t hear a darn thing! That’s the reality for many elderly people with hearing loss. They may seem to be irritable, when in fact they’re simply frustrated because they can’t hear what you’re saying. Some ideas when dealing with hearing loss:

  1. Get their attention. Put your hand gently on their shoulder, or speak their name to get their attention, before you give important information.
  2. Reduce background noise. Turn off the music or television. When in restaurants and social gatherings, sit away from crowded areas.
  3. Speak clearly. People with hearing loss hate mumbling. Face the person and enunciate clearly. Speak at a speed slightly slower than normal (but not too slow).
  4. Speak loudly. Speak a little more loudly than normal, but don’t shout.
  5. Repeat yourself. People with hearing loss may compensate by nodding as though they understand, when in fact they didn’t hear you.
  6. Have good lighting. Facial expressions and body language can be seen more clearly in well-lit areas.

Related resource: A Healthcare Professional’s Guide to Clear Patient Communication

Understand common elder diagnoses

It might not be appropriate for you to ask people about their medical conditions. Asking a combative patient if they have Alzheimer’s disease would not be a good start, especially if the answer is no. But understanding some common ailments and symptoms can offer insight into what your elder patient may be dealing with.

The most common ailments our elderly patients experience include:

  • Heart conditions. This includes hypertension, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease. Side effects include fatigue and lack of physical strength.
  • Dementia. In addition to memory loss, dementia patients experience paranoia, aggression, agitation, and lack of self-care.
  • Delirium. Symptoms include shaking, a shortened attention span, and extreme mood swings.
  • Depression. Depression is very common among the elderly. Sadness, irritability, fatigue, and feelings of worthlessness are all symptoms.

Related resource: 5 Ways Nurses Can Build Rapport With Patients

Respect generational differences

“Kids these days!”

You don’t have to be an elder to find yourself saying that, but elders in particular may object to social conventions that younger people consider normal. It’s important for healthcare workers whose patients are elderly to understand and respect the difference of opinion, and, in some cases, make reasonable concessions in order to have a happier, more respectful relationship.

Physical appearance may the easiest adaption a healthcare worker can make. Consider covering up tattoos with long sleeves and removing facial piercings (earrings are okay).

Avoid political or controversial topics. A lively political debate among friends is one thing, but if you find yourself on the receiving end of an angry tirade, respond with neutral comments that support the person’s right to an opinion … even if you don’t agree.

Age deserves respect

Our elders have all lived through times of incredible change, including wars and new technologies unimaginable 75 years ago. They’ve seen friends and loved ones born and die, and they may be struggling to find peace within themselves. Healthcare workers have a responsibility to maintain a high standard of respect for our elders and for the rich experiences of their lives.

Help elders maintain dignity by not trying to do things for them that they can still do for themselves.

Show deference and respect by letting an elder go in front of you in line, by holding open a door, or by offering an umbrella in the rain.

At Ameritech, we’re proud of the impact our dedicated nurses, occupational therapy assistants, and other professionals have on our elder community.