At the time we’re writing this, the spread of novel coronavirus COVID-19 continues to be high on everyone’s minds. The social distancing measures put into place in response to COVID are a powerful reminder of what it means to truly connect with other people, and how enriching and fulfilling communication can be for people of all ages — particularly seniors.
For older adults, regular communication with friends, family, and trusted connections is actually one of the primary pillars of good health.
The Health Benefits of Communication
Social isolation and loneliness are serious health concerns among the elderly, and can have a dramatic effect on a senior’s mental health, physical well-being, and quality of life in the long-term.
On the flip side, staying connected and keeping lines of communication open can have some major health and lifestyle benefits for older adults. In fact, studies have shown that seniors who regularly communicate with others in their family or in their community are generally healthier and happier – and experience lower rates of chronic illness, less anxiety and depression, better cognitive health, improved mobility, and even increased longevity.
For seniors, communication can come in many different forms, each with its own unique benefits to offer. Depending on your senior loved one’s wishes and needs, communication may mean:
Being there in person can make an enormous difference for a senior’s health and well-being. As Psychologist Susan Pinker explains to Medical News Today, person-to-person contact can help trigger parts of the nervous system to release a “cocktail” of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, that help manage stress and anxiety. Like a vaccine, a simple personal interaction can have long-term effects as it “increases your level of trust” and “lowers your cortisol levels, so it lowers your stress.”
Over time, reducing these harmful levels of stress can help mitigate risk factors that “can adversely affect coronary arteries, gut function, insulin regulation, and the immune system,” as Harvard Health explains. Better still, evidence cited by Harvard Health suggests that “the life-enhancing effects of social support extend to giver as well as to receiver.”
Exchanging stories and talking about the day over a delicious, nutritious plate of food is a powerful form of connection — with real, meaningful benefits for seniors’ overall health. In a study, 85% of seniors say that having someone to share their meals with makes dining a more satisfying experience. 88% say that “stimulating conversation” is one of the biggest benefits of sharing a meal with family and friends. Many seniors say that eating together makes food taste better, and some important research suggests that seniors take longer to eat and make healthier choices when they eat with a companion, compared to dining alone.
Staying Connected, Remotely
In the “new normal” of coronavirus, millions of families around the country have found clever ways to communicate, while remaining physically apart. In many cases, this means adopting the remote communication tactics that have been serving long-distance caregivers for years, including phone calls, email, video chats, and even handwritten letters.
When you can’t be there in person, studies have shown that communicating remotely can be the next best thing. For example, one study found that older adults who used video chat applications such as Skype and FaceTime had half the estimated probability of depressive symptoms as their peers, according to U.S. News & World Report. Similarly, going old school and writing letters can have significant therapeutic benefits. Research suggests that this classic form of communication can help lead to “better mood, reduced stress and improved overall sense of well-being,” according to a report from HuffPost.
Tips for Communicating With Your Elderly Loved Ones
So, what can you do to help make sure your senior loved one is able to enjoy the positive effects of meaningful, healthy communication with friends, family, and their caregiving network?
There are lots of simple steps that family caregivers can take to make a difference:
Make Time to Be There
It’s hard to overstate the benefits of being there. Visits from loved ones can brighten a senior’s day to no end. As a family caregiver, a powerful first step is to simply try to be present with your loved one as often as possible. When this is more difficult due to your personal circumstances — whether you’re busy with work, live far away, or have other family obligations — find other ways to connect, like talking on the phone, reaching out by email, or scheduling video chats. Keep in mind that it’s important to really be present. When you’re with your senior loved one, put away your phone, block out distractions, and focus on living in the moment and making the most of your time together.
Make Communication as Easy as Possible
For many elderly adults, communicating is often more easily said than done. You may need to adopt a strategy for connecting and communicating with your loved one, particularly if they have health needs that can make communication more difficult such as hearing loss or dementia.
As a rule of thumb, you can help make communication easier with your senior loved one by minimizing distractions. Turn off the TV or radio, make sure the room is quiet and well-lit, and give each other your full attention (rather than, say, yelling from room to room). Speak clearly and directly. Use specific details to avoid confusion, and try to use “I” statements whenever you can.
Above all, be patient and compassionate. Give your elderly loved one plenty of time to hear, process, and respond to what you’re saying. Be respectful and try to avoid arguments. As Preston Ni writes for Psychology Today, some ways to minimize tension may be to “ask instead of assume,” “ask instead of order,” and “offer choices whenever possible.”
Practice Active Listening
Remember that healthy communication is a two-way street. Learn to practice active listening. Be receptive and open to hearing what your loved one has to say; maintain eye contact; and focus on body language that shows that you’re listening, like angling yourself toward your loved one.
Keep an eye on their body language, as well. Be aware when they seem stressed or tired, and watch for physical cues that they may be giving off. Use affirmative language, and don’t be afraid to repeat back what your loved one said to show that you’re listening. You can also use physical touch to foster a connection. A hand on a shoulder, for instance, can be a warm gesture of comfort and respect.
Find Creative Ways to Connect
Whether you’re looking to enjoy an afternoon with the family or finding an “ice breaker” before a serious talk, there are lots of creative ways to open up lines of communication with your senior loved ones. Some simple, practical ideas may be to work on an art project together; listen to music; go through photo albums or scrapbooks; or play a game. All of these strategies can help your senior loved one to open up. When you’re collaborating and working as a team, it can be much easier to foster small talk — or even start opening up the conversation into bigger challenges or considerations.
Bring In a Senior Companion
When you can’t be there in person, a companion can help provide your loved one with the social support they need to live a full and complete life. Whether your loved one needs full-time care or simply a supportive friend to stop in for a few hours a week, an experienced senior companion can help them stay socially active by going on outings, playing games, swapping stories, helping them to run errands or attend community events, or simply enjoying some quiet time at home. Along the way, you can trust that a trained companion has the communication skills it takes to help the senior come out of their shell.
For a truly dedicated companion, spending time with the elderly isn’t just a job, but a passion. Rather than work, they think of this time as true friendship — and that can truly make communication easier and more enjoyable for the senior in your life.
Companions for Seniors Is Here to Help
As a family caregiver, it’s important to know when to reach out for help. Managing a senior loved one’s care plan can be a lot to handle on your own, particularly if your senior loved one needs more social support than you can give, or if they face challenges with speaking, hearing, or communicating.
If you have an elderly loved one that you believe could benefit from the assistance of a professional companion, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us to get the conversation started. We’re here to answer any questions you may have, share our knowledge, and help you find a path that will benefit your elderly loved one — while working within your schedule as a family caregiver.
At Companions for Seniors, our mission is to help seniors live independently and with dignity in the comfort of their own home by empowering them to lead an active and enriched lifestyle, connecting them with their community, and nurturing meaningful relationships.
Our companions are trained and bonded, and can help provide a variety of services designed to help your loved one remain in the comfort of their own home. For our professional companions, communicating with the elderly and providing high quality care is a calling, not just a job. Our caregivers know the importance of spending time with, and actively listening to, our senior friends.
Have any more questions about fostering better communication between yourself and your aging loved ones? Interested in seeing what sets our home care services apart? Get in touch online today, or give us a call at 866-910-9020 whenever you’re ready to get started.