(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 38, Issue 5.)
By allowing the person to direct the conversation, you can collect important clues to what the person places value on. Shutting off the conversations or trying to redirect back to the original issue blocks communication and may be interpreted as not respecting the person.
The concepts in "How To Say It® to Seniors" will improve your communication with older adults. The book explores the "developmental agenda" of older adults, and offers advice on breaking down the barriers to communicating with adults nearing the end of life. The book introduces the concept of a "legacy coach" and describes the skills needed by one, as well as the value of guiding older adults through the thought processes and conversations needed to complete the developmental stages of later life.
It might be easy to assume that emotional development is complete when we are independent adults, but research shows that it is not. Two major factors emerge late in life: a need to remain in control as our health and social system around us are changing; and, a need to review and redefine our life events to develop our legacy. That legacy is how we will be, or how we want to be, remembered. These psychological drivers impact communication with older adults. The need to retain control results in older adults rejecting recommendations or demands for action and being asked to make choices. By reframing issues from trying to force a person to take action, to offering the individual options and urging them to choose , the conversation moves from conflict to respect and opens the channels of communication.
Developing legacy frequently manifests in non-linear conversations that veer off into the older adult talking about his (or her) life experience. When this happens, the person is telling the world what is important to him, and how he wants his life to be remembered. Valuable clues to the person’s core values and beliefs are revealed in what may seem like rambling conversations. By allowing the person to direct the conversation, you can collect important clues to what the person places value on. Shutting off the conversations or trying to redirect back to the original issue blocks communication and may be interpreted as not respecting the person. The author explains that these changes of topic signal that the person has something he needs to talk about that is of high value to him. Allowing this natural flow will lead to better understanding of the person. By listening to the person, we learn more about what is important than we do by trying to stay on message and on point.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who works with older adults, has older family members, or is getting older himself. I found the book very helpful in better understanding the psychology and communication of older adults, and I have been working in these fields for decades.
David Godfrey is a senior attorney at the ABA Commission on Law and Aging. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org