Articles about catering to Millennials dominate the media landscape, but considering the fact that both pet ownership and the 65-and-older population are on the rise, smart veterinarians and team members may want to look at how they talk to folks in person, online and by mail to be sure they’re appealing to their entire client demographic.
While there’s little literature on veterinarian-client-patient communication, studies on physician-patient interactions have shown that effective communication can improve medical outcomes, including health, compliance and satisfaction.
With the goal of better outcomes in mind, we’ve borrowed from The Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) paper "Communicating with Older Adults” to provide some guidelines for tailoring your talk to the needs and expectations of older adults. No two older adults are exactly alike, so be prepared to adapt these tips to the individual.
Whether from personal experience, the media or both, you’ve probably developed stereotypes about older adults. Perhaps you assume all men over 70 are cantankerous, stingy and deaf, or that women in their 80s are all sweet, confused simpletons who think “Twitter” is a style of dancing. Take a moment to think about older adult stereotypes that may have taken root in your mind.
It’s important to adapt your communication style to reality and not a stereotype. Begin an exam with an older client by asking a few questions to help you assess linguistic, cognitive and hearing abilities. Ask something open-ended, like, “Can you tell me about your pet and what brings you here today?” or, “I know we started Fluffy on a diet last time she was here. How has that been going?” Let patient-generated (not assumption-based) information guide your communication.
According to GSA, “younger people sometimes address older adults in a style of speech characterized by the use of simplified vocabulary (e.g., only using short words), endearing or diminutive terms (e.g., 'sweetie' or 'cutie') and exaggerated intonation (e.g., unusual stress on certain words, “sing-song” pitch variation you’d use with babies or adorable pets),” but most older adults feel disrespected and infantilized when addressed with this “elderspeak.”
Instead of addressing older adults with terms of endearment, call them “Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Smith” until you have a good enough relationship to ask permission to address them by their first names. Avoid using high and variable pitch (it can actually be counterproductive, as it’s hard for people with hearing problems to comprehend), and don’t assume that older adults need simplified vocabulary.
“As a general rule,” GSA says, “older adults maintain their existing vocabulary or continue to improve it. They have no greater problem understanding complicated words than do members of other age groups.”
Know your nonverbals
Nonverbal communication includes eye contact, facial expressions, vocal tone, speech rate and volume, body positioning and use of space—and it can have a huge impact on communication effectiveness. Depending on how nonverbals are used, they can either help or hinder your message as well as your relationship with a pet owner.
For example, you can use nonverbal behaviors to enhance comprehension and processing in older adults with vision and hearing impairments. You can also use nonverbal behaviors to communicate “whether you are interested in and concerned about the other person [and] whether he or she should trust what you are saying,” says GSA.
While it’s increasingly difficult to accomplish in a world of smartphones and computer screens, try to maintain eye contact with older clients as much as possible and avoid giving the appearance of being rushed (e.g., don’t keep glancing at the door or at your watch). Maintaining eye contact also helps communicate that the topic at hand is important to you and that the client and patient are important to you as well.
If you think the client may have a hearing impairment, speak a little louder, but don’t shout, which can raise your pitch to a level that’s hard to comprehend. Face them while you talk and get your mouth at the same level as theirs to help those who rely on reading lips.