Elizabeth has cancer and has been in and out of the hospital for the last two years. Since September, she's had to go in every day for radiation. She's thrilled that the hospital sends somebody to pick her up and drive her home, and she says the nurses couldn't be nicer. "Everybody at the hospital is very friendly," enthuses Elizabeth, who will turn 74 two days before Christmas.
There is one thing, though, that drives her "absolutely nuts."
"They always treat me like a 4-year-old," she says. "Or like I'm simple-minded." Whenever a physician, nurse or other staff member sits Karen down to explain her medical situation, they talk very slowly, in a tone she calls "Sister Mary" after her kindergarten teacher back in parochial school "a thousand years ago." When they're done talking she half-expects them to pat her on the head and hand her a lollypop.
"The information is complicated and I know they mean well," Karen says. "But there's a way to explain complicated information without talking down to a person. Especially to a person who's older than you are."
How to do that is the intent of a new guide from the Gerontological Society of America, "Communicating With Older Adults: An Evidence-Based Review of What Really Works." The aim is to help health care professionals — physicians, nurses, social workers, hospital staff, even administrators and other nonclinicians — interact with older patients.
"It covers a full range of communication issues experienced by older adults and health care providers, and gives concrete suggestions for dealing with problems when they arise," says Jake Harwood, head of the advisory board that crafted the guidelines.
The recommendations were contributed by experts in the field of gerontology and communications. Each is accompanied by a brief explanation of the rationale, tips for implementing the recommendation in busy health care settings and references for further reading.
"The recommendations include nonverbal and verbal strategies that are often grounded in compelling examples that involve common communication challenges," says advisory board member Daniel G. Morrow.
The aim, according to GSA, "is to encourage behaviors that consider the unique abilities and challenges of older adult patients and produce positive, effective interactions among everyone involved."
Among the 29 recommendations are two that Elizabeth would appreciate: Avoid speech that might be seen as patronizing to an older person. At the same time, verify that the patient understands what you're telling him or her.
The proportion of the American population over 65 is expanding at lightning speed and so will their health care needs. Conveying critical health information in a respectful way is a skill every health care professional ought to acquire.