Communication Patterns of Older Adults

Older adults exhibit communication patterns and there is a need for our understanding, creativity and patience in communicating with them. The problem is that we lack key information about the aging process and its effects on seniors. If we have the information, then it will help us understand what seniors are going through and would enhance our ability to communicate with them. We need to understand how personality develops throughout our lives and how our lack of this knowledge affects our interactions with seniors.

Personality development is an ongoing process at each stage of our lives and in this an individual has to deal with tasks that conflict. This conflict determines and affects our behavior even though we are not aware of it. Erik Erikson, an eminent figure in the field of psychoanalysis and human development has referred to these conflicting tasks as “crisis” that must be resolved for us to move to the next stage of development. In the case of seniors, when they try to resolve their crisis, they move backwards instead of forward and they tend to reflect on what their lives have meant to themselves and others (including their loved ones and the world at large).

We would have often noticed that seniors repeat their stories, or fret about details or keep forgetting things and this makes us think that they are becoming frail and losing control over themselves. However, this is not the truth. This communication pattern is indicative that the seniors are responding to their development tasks with a sense of urgency. The reason for this urgency is that they feel by responding to their developmental mandate and by resolving their conflict, they will be remembered long after they are gone and be cherished by the following generations. However, if they do not do this their memories will fade and they will be forgotten much sooner.

Personality development is an ongoing and lifelong process but at the end of their lives, seniors face a developmental conflict they can’t express clearly but have to resolve. They want to maintain control over their lives along with the daily losses of cognition, strength, memory, etc. and simultaneously discover their legacy that they wish should live on even after they are gone. The need of hanging on to things and the need of letting go leads to a conflict and in trying to resolve this conflict sometimes produce a difficult communication style. This is manifested in the form of occasional wandering from subject to subject, repeating the same stories which have been told earlier a lot of times, postponing decisions, going off tangents and describing things in endless detail.

The young and the middle aged, on the other hand have lists of endless tasks bound by timelines and this makes them feel powerful and in control. When they see older adults moving at a snail’s pace, they get frustrated and blame them for their mental and physical weaknesses. It is this frustration which is the biggest barrier in our understanding of seniors. The same control which we have, and we know we have it, when we are younger is slipping away from the grasp of our aging loved ones on a daily basis and that is why they feel the need to hang on to everything they can.

Seniors often exhibit the following certain communication patterns.

Lacking urgency in their responses

Older adults’ perspective on life changes as they age and it is quite different from how younger adults perceive life. The sense of urgency displayed by younger adults is totally lacking in seniors as they come to realize that life is not all about tasks which need to be finished or decisions that have to be made, but it is about what they have already accomplished in life.

The key for effective communication in response to this pattern is to listen and accept that this is the normal pace of the seniors. It is important to make the seniors feel the ease in our behaviors in interacting with them and this will help them open up and accelerate their responses.

Non-linear conversations

These include off topic discussions and become a way to find purpose, direction and meaning from their experiences.

The key for communication through these conversations is to find a balance between listening and facilitating further non-linear conversations. By listening to these conversations carefully, we can look for patterns and themes.


Non-linear conversations focus on the people and events of value, however, repetition helps us define values.

When seniors repeat a story, ask questions to clarify the story’s value. This will help the older adult telling the story to clarify his reasons for repetition.

Disconnecting or uncoupling

An older adult may just disconnect from us when our communication was not what they need. This would require persistence on our part and at a time we get a signal from them that they are ready to reconnect, we must act on it immediately.

Offering open ended questions and looking for clues can help find an opportunity that they are ready to connect again.

Only by understanding these behaviors we can improve our relationships with the older generation and help them with their end-of-life tasks.