There are efforts underway in many sectors - housing, education, employment, healthcare - to use intergenerational approaches to improve opportunities and outcomes for the several generations that come together to achieve many desired societal goals, such as reducing social isolation, ending ageism, growing the workforce, and improving quality of life.
This mixing of the generations offers enormous benefits for all and it will surely promote open-mindedness, tolerance, and understanding. People who reach the age of 65 now have a life expectancy of 86 years and older people now comprise two+ generations of people from the ages of 65 to 100+. If intergenerational programs and services are to be successful, younger generations must learn a few “rules of the road” for interacting with older people, including the oldest old, those over the age of 85, who may functional or cognitive limitations. Many younger generations have not spent significant amounts of time around older people, particularly those with impairments. What are the correct ways to engage with older people? How do you talk with someone who has forgetfulness or mild or advanced dementia; or someone who is hard of hearing, has poor vision, or has difficulty speaking?
The first “rule of thumb” should always be to inquire of the older person; ask about preferences, likes or dislikes directly and never assume. If the older individual can express a preference or has a specific request, it should be honored. Beyond that, here are a few basic suggestions that can apply to interactions with all older people, no matter their age or no matter the setting.
Tip #1: Use more inclusive, less judgmental language when referring to older people. Use of the term “elderly” or “the elderly” is associated with frailty and decline, which may not be representative of the person or people you are addressing. According to recent research by the FrameWorks Institute, a social change research institute, “older people” is the preferred term because it is inclusive and less associated with frailty and debility. Use of “older” confirms the relative aspect of aging, since we are all aging and there is no threshold-crossing at which time we become “old”, and use of “people” is the most humanizing; it is the lowest common denominator of our humanity.
Tip #2: Older people are not children and they do not want to be spoken to as if they are. This means refraining from calling them “sweetie” or “honey” or referring to their behavior as “cute”. While people may indeed be charmed by the wisdom and humor of some older people, it is our responsibility to recognize that older people have lived long lives, full of experiences and expertise and we should all be treated accordingly. Use of diminutive endearments is particularly common among caregivers; but just because some older people need assistance with some activities of daily life should not diminish their stature as an autonomous person with years of accumulated experience, wisdom, and knowledge.
Tip #3: Speak directly to the older person. In any conversation with mixed ages, speak directly to the older person and do not address questions about the older person to someone else in the room, even if that person has decision-making authority. We often talk over older people, forgetting that they have feelings, opinions, and decision-making autonomy, and that they command the same dignity and respect as everyone else -- perhaps more.
Tip #4: Make older people visible. Older people tend to be invisible in a youth-obsessed culture, so be sure to actually see and acknowledge older people in whatever setting you encounter them. This means greeting them, engaging with them, consulting them, and listening to them when they speak. Older people have much to offer and much to teach us about growing old, and growing very old, in our society. We have been slow to learn these lessons, so we must catch up.
Tip #5: When engaging with someone with any cognitive impairment, enter into their own reality. It is pointless to remind someone with dementia of the correct time, date, place, or surrounding circumstances. Doing so often causes greater confusion and anxiety for that person. If an older person with confusion asks the same question repeatedly, it is best to answer repeatedly without showing frustration or concern. If an older person with dementia thinks it is 1950, it is best to go along with that reality as best you can and as calmly and reassuringly as possible.
There are a few simple guidelines for engaging with older people who have physical impairments of any sort - mobility, vision, or hearing. For those with mobility challenges, ask them directly (if it isn’t obvious) whether and how you can assist them. Most people with support needs can and will ask for the help they need; do not automatically offer help if they seem to be managing fine. The exception would be those courtesies that we would offer anyone, such as opening doors.
For individuals with vision impairments, it is most helpful to describe the immediate environment, if it is relevant to the interaction, and be attuned to those things that must need to be seen in order to understand the situation. For example, if someone walks into the room, it is courteous to say to the person with the impairment, “Ms. ___ has joined us”.
Hearing impairments, like vision impairments, are on a spectrum, but it is usually best to speak clearly and more slowly, facing the person directly, and pausing slightly while talking. Avoid shouting; sometimes speaking in a lower tone of voice is helpful for some. Avoid situations where there is a lot of background noise.
Maine is the oldest state in the nation, by median age and we want to be at the vanguard of consistent, respectful, and dignified interactions with all older people.
Mary Lou Ciolfi, JD, MS, HillHouse's former Administrator, holds adjunct faculty positions at the University of New England and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and teaches courses in Health Policy and Aging Politics, Policy & Law. She has particular interests in Ageism, Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older People, and End-of Life Care