TURN TALK POSITIVE
Watch Your Phraseology
Communication is a skill. If we ask the right questions, we’ll get meaningful answers. In order to ask the right questions of our elders, we need to use language that forges connections and allows them to reveal what they’re thinking. Through our conversations we can then mine the richness they possess and honor the legacy they are defining for themselves in their later years, even as they fear losing independence and control.
Whether we realize it or not, many of the routine questions we pose to our elders carry messages that indicate we doubt their competence or project negative feelings about senior adult behavior in general.
“Are you going to see the specialist as we agreed?”
“What do you mean you don’t want to go?"
“Why are you making this so difficult?”
They perceive such questions as a challenge to their competence or an attempt to wrest control from them and may, therefore, react with unexpected and exasperating resistance or defensiveness. From our elders’ perspective, we seem to be asking questions to document their inadequacies and lack of preparation for future events—not to help them cope.
Crafting questions well, on the other hand, gives the older person a clear signal about our openness and sincerity. It’s not so much the words we say but the way we say them—our tone and attitude—that reveal our desire to achieve true communication.
Obtaining information from an elderly person requires that we treat them with respect. In the following examples, notice how we might usually question an older person and then let’s put ourselves in his or her position. Which version of the questions below would you rather answer?
Dad, why haven’t you filled the new prescription the doctor gave you last week?
Dad, when Uncle Albert developed this condition, I remember he found this particular medication to be quite effective in relieving his symptoms. Do you think it’s worth a try?
Have you signed at the bottom of page six yet? Remember we need to submit this document to the IRS by Friday.
It’s completely your decision, but the IRS gives you a big tax break for filing this document before the first of the year. Do you want to take advantage of this opportunity to save some money or would you like more time to think about it?
Yes, Mom, you’ve told me all about Aunt Myrtle and how her death affected you. What else is on your mind?
Of course I know about Aunt Myrtle, Mom, but I never realized how deeply her death affected you. What is your favorite memory of her?
Note that the words are pretty much the same; what’s different is the emphasis or tone with which they are said (see sidebar below). We don’t need to become our elders’ therapists but we do need to signal verbally and nonverbally that we appreciate the values they express in their conversations—and that we respect their need to maintain as much control and independence as possible.
Food for thought: Every day, whether our elders speak of it or not, they are reexamining events in their lives with the enhanced perspective of age. Keep in mind that often even our simple conversations play a part for our elders as they are forming their legacies—what they feel their lives were all about, how their lives have affected ours—in essence, how they will be remembered.
Adapted with permission from How to Say It® to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders by David Solie, MS, PA (Prentiss Hall Press, 2004). For additional information about the book, visit www.dsolie.com.