Respect Your Elders: How to Effectively Interact with an Elderly Resident

As people age, some of the physical, emotional, & cognitive capacities that once existed in full force begin to wane. There are elderly individuals capable of interacting within normal parameters, but for many residents in an assisted living situation, there can be complications in having a normal, everyday interactions. Some residents make take longer to complete activities or tasks, or take longer to process or produce information. Others even need various levels of prompting, which can range from a simple verbal prompt to physically assisting the individual through a task.

Sometimes caretakers can get frustrated in dealing with residents for various reasons. Perhaps the resident doesn’t seem to understand, is being non-compliant, or is repeatedly performing a different task than what was asked of them. Not to mention that any type of caretaking job can be very demanding and at times difficult to keep it together. However, any feelings of frustration, exhaustion, or other negative energy must not be taken out on the resident. It is part of our professional duty to maintain a positive or neutral composure so as not to negatively affect the resident, which just creates problems for future engagements with them.  If certain interactions are handled inappropriately, this only escalates to a power struggle, achieving nothing except more frustration and maybe even a potential risk of injury.

Assisted Living Education reviews how to effectively communicate with your residents, and some methods and techniques to keep in mind in your daily conversations.

Clarity & Tone of Voice

You may notice some caretakers speaking to their residents in an elevated pitch and using simple phrases, resembling the way one would speak to a child. Depending on the resident and their needs, simple phrases or directions may be best in order to help them process the request easier. However, it is inadvisable to speak to any adult as if they are an adult child. It is a matter of respect and dignity, and although they may seem unaware or not completely cognizant, certain things are still understood and internalized.

Speaking in a clear, kind or neutral tone is always best, especially when giving directions or addressing an issue. Speaking slower, but not hyperbolically slow can also help with residents who need an extra moment to help process information. Avoid shouting or an excessively raised voice, even if you are trying to communicate with someone hard of hearing. It can be misinterpreted as anger. Learn to increase the volume of your voice without shouting when speaking with someone hard of hearing.

Environment & Approach

Just as in regular conversation with anyone, the way in which you approach someone and the environment you’re in can affect how the interaction goes. Think about trying to have a conversation in a loud restaurant or other venue. It’s hard to hear the other person over loud ambient or sharp noises, and trying to get their attention if they’re facing away from you can be difficult.

For residents with dementia or that are hard of hearing, this challenge can be the daily norm. When interacting with residents with these known conditions, especially when trying to give directions, make sure you’re in a space where there aren’t other noises that could distract the individual from hearing or understanding you clearly.  It is also helpful if you speak to the resident face-to-face to better keep their attention as well as help them understand what you are saying if they can see your mouth forming the words.

Body language is crucial as well. Your posture should be relaxed and open, and be aware of the expression on your face. A frown or closed body posture, a hand on the hip or forceful movements can indicate anger or aggression, which the resident can pick up on and respond to negatively.

If possible, make sure you approach your residents from the front, while gently yet clearly and audibly addressing them, especially if the resident also has vision problems. Startling a resident, particularly one with dementia, may cause them to react physically and inadvertently inflict an injury upon themselves or others.

One last note: Also make sure you ask the resident or someone who can speak on their behalf what they prefer to be called. A first name or a personal nickname may be fine, but some residents may be more traditional and prefer Mr./Mrs./etc., or even a title earned from their career, such as Dr., Col., Professor, and so on. Unless you have built rapport with the resident, avoid calling them ‘honey,’ ‘dear,’ or other generic nicknames as it can sound patronizing. It is also a vague form of address, so the resident may not realize to respond to it. A person’s own name will always get their attention.

Listening & Being Present

Although our work in an assisted living facility is demanding and often busy, sparing a moment (if possible) can make all the difference with our residents. The most time-efficient way of doing this is to making the most of your interactions with them. Whether you are a nurse administering their medications or a CNA caring for them, engaging with the resident in a positive fashion can help establish a good rapport and make the resident feel comfortable and even validated. This rapport can also help in future interactions that may present a challenge. A resident is more likely to comply or respond better to a trusted figure in their reality, and a potential situation can de-escalate more quickly.

When with your residents for a task, session, or other activity, be sure the focus is on them, and not others, i.e., casually chatting with other staff members nearby. Unless it’s urgent or relevant to the resident’s care, the chit-chat can be saved for later.

Some residents may be lonely or feel like no one wants to be around them, and having that human contact can brighten their day. However, some residents may be especially chatty, so learning how to tactfully excuse yourself is important as well. Offering to catch up with them next time is a gentle way to move along without getting caught up and delayed in your own tasks.

Additionally, when asking residents a question, allow enough wait time for a response. In getting to know the individual, you’ll figure out what is appropriate before you may have to ask again or rephrase the question. It may take longer for a resident to process the information or ‘find the right words’ to respond appropriately. Rushing or interrupting them can cause frustration and upset. After the appropriate wait time has been allowed, you may need to ask/rephrase, and possibly offer a prompt to help them.

As is the case with most things in assisted living, knowing your residents as well as being aware of their medical and personal history, etc. is crucial to effectively caring for and treating each individual.

Assisted Living Education is dedicated to training and educating people genuinely interested in this field of healthcare, and molding highly skilled, competent, & compassionate professionals. We offer RCFE courses, CEU & online courses, as well as other services and products for the assisted living field. Explore our website or visit our contact page for more information.


About Assisted Living Education
Assisted Living Education has been operating in and improving the growing senior care industry for over 15 years. Founded by certified RCFE administrators, Jane Van Dyke-Perez and Bill Perez, we have licensed more than 1,100 assisted living facilities and built close relationships with the California Department of Social Services, assisted living managers, owners and industry professionals. As senior living care educators ourselves, we strive to contribute our knowledge and skills to continually improve senior care and the satisfaction of those working in the industry.