Five Verbal Behaviors to Recognize when Communicating with Seniors

Five Verbal Behaviors to Recognize when Communicating with Seniors
Eileen St. Pierre, The Everyday Financial Planner

elderly father with daughterI recently took a professional development course on ethically communicating with seniors. With the graying of the American population, it will become more important for all of us to effectively communicate with the wisest members of our society who deserve our respect. Older adults tend to exhibit five verbal behaviors that are often misjudged as mental decline. Recognizing these behaviors can help you identify how to approach a difficult subject such as managing their financial affairs, and achieve a more successful outcome.

Lack of Urgency

You may feel a sense of urgency to get your mother’s financial affairs in order. But your mother wants to talk about the grandchildren AGAIN. Your mother displays a lack of urgency because at this stage of her life, making decisions is not what’s important. She is more concerned with what has happened and the meaning of her life experiences.

  • Accept that this is a normal response.
  • Respect your mother’s pace and do not take the situation personally.
  • Your mother will choose the timing of the decision.

Nonlinear Conversations

You want to discuss filling out a health care directive with your father. You finally get him to sit down with you and he starts telling you about the time he shot a hole-in-one. Older adults often use nonlinear conversations and wander off the topic of conversation. You may think it’s veering off topic but to seniors it’s a different way of looking at their lives.

  • Listen for patterns in what your father is saying.
  • He may be remembering a time in his life when he was at his peak physically.
  • Paraphrase what you hear as a way to support your father in creating meaning from his experience.


All of us have that one relative who always repeats the same story at family gatherings. Oh no, not the story of how Aunt Loraine saved all the money from using her coupons to get that gaudy set of dishes! Seniors use repetition to help them recall and revisit events that had a great impact on their lives.

  • Rather than tune out your aunt, pay attention to what is being emphasized and ask her what you perceive is the significance of the story.
  • You may respond “Boy, Aunt Loraine, you sure are proud of those dishes! It must have taken a lot of discipline on your part to save up for them.”

Attention to Details

Your elderly neighbor told you that story again of how his family came to Oklahoma. But this time the details of the story did not quite match what he told you before. This does not mean your neighbor is slipping mentally. He’s just using the memory as a way to see the situation differently and attach value to it. The details themselves are not important.

  • Appreciate the details and listen closely – do not dismiss them.
  • Attempt to enter the scene your neighbor describes.
  • Your neighbor realizes that he will one day need to leave his home in Oklahoma and move out of state, closer to his children.


In today’s digital age, it can be extremely frustrating to reach a human being on the telephone to get a question answered. Imagine how older adults feel. By the time they finally get to talk to someone, they may uncouple or disconnect from the conversation immediately if the agent on the other end does not understand what they need right away. Uncoupling does not have to signal the end of the conversation.

  • Don’t make assumptions about what the senior needs.
  • Instead of asking questions that require a simple yes or no, ask open-ended questions to discover more clearly what the senior needs.

This course not only helped me to be a more successful financial advisor to my older clients, but also a better daughter and friend. Take the time to listen to the older adults in your lives. They can teach you a lot.

Visit my Financial Planning for Later in Life page for more information.