Bridging the “Great Communication Divide”

Bridging the “Great Communication Divide”

The Mindful Caregiver: How to Talk so Elders Will Listen – How Listen so Elders Will Talk

By Nancy Kriseman LCSW

AJT Featured Columnist


Nancy Kriseman

Over the years my clients and even friends have shared that they find it difficult to have a quality conversation with an elder loved one.  Let me shed some light on this subject so that perhaps a more compassionate and engaging conversation can ensue.

The Traditionalist generation, or those born between 1926 and 1945, lived through the great depression, several wars and significant political upheaval.  They were a generation that believed in hard work, sacrifice, dedication and privacy. They believed they should be able to handle everything, even if it meant sacrificing themselves. They were not comfortable with asking for help. Those experiences shaped much of their attitudes and beliefs, and the choices they make.

Understanding their perspective can hopefully help younger generations be more compassionate and better prepared to conquer what I refer to is the “great communication divide.” Here are some tips that might help ease your way.

Facilitate Positive Responses

Avoid the standard questions such as, How are you doing? How are you feeling? These questions are often answered in the negative or with an expected response. Instead, ask about topics that can prompt a more positive response.  Here are some examples. Tell me something you enjoyed in your day today. Did you eat something that was really good? Tell me something you did today that made you feel better. If the elder can’t answer these, you could consider providing examples yourself by answering those same questions as they pertain to you. By doing so, might encourage a response from the elder.

Provide Opportunities to Share

Be curious and ask questions about your loved ones past. For example, Mom, tell me what dating was like when you were a young adult. Or, how did you pay for things without credit cards? What was your first car and how old were you when you started to drive? So often elders feel that their lives are not interesting anymore and this can lead to their feeling disconnected and alone. Knowing their lives mattered is particularly important. Let them know that what they think is important to you, even if you both don’t agree.

Approach Sensitive Topics with a Plan

When you have to approach sensitive topics, particularly around care issues and finances, consider when to and who should communicate.  It’s a good idea to begin sensitive conversations, way before the elder becomes frail. Waiting until the elder is infirm or declining cognitively increases the likelihood of a major communication barrier.  Who should communicate is another factor.  Ask who might be the best person to approach difficult topics.  And consider alternatives, such as suggesting a support group or an educational seminar.  Sometimes information from other sources can open the door for more positive conversation.

Go with the Resistance

Go with the elder’s resistance instead of pushing against it. Validatethe elders’ feelings or point of view, no matter how much you may disagree. People need to feel listened to and heard!  If she says, “Someone will have to carry me out dead before I leave this house.” You might respond back by saying, “I can imagine you might feel that way, not wanting to leave your home, let’s table this conversation for now.”  Often the resistance comes from feeling out of control.

Honor their Contributions

Think of ways the elders can still contribute.  Dad I need your advice about growing roses, or mom how did you handle a situation like this?

Last but Not Least, Find a Way to Inject Humor

A sense of humor or the ability to laugh can lighten the most serious of conversations.  We all have a tendency to take ourselves too seriously.

Remember as person ages they experience many different kinds of losses. Often those losses go hand in hand with losing control. Helping the elder find ways to still be in control such as thinking of ways the elder can still contribute to the family or his own life will be important and can help you experience more positive and productive conversation.


Nancy Kriseman is an author and licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with older people and their families.  This column is about helping families make the best decisions possible and be proactive when supporting and caring for elder family members. To contact Nancy, visit her website at, go to her Facebook page, or follow her on twitter @GeriatricMSW.


read more: