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Breaking down the intergenerational wall: six ways to optimise your interactions with older adults

By Cici Illipparampil

It’s several years into the future and you’ve just turned 80. Sadly you’ve been struggling to manage at home. You’re getting forgetful, and you’ve had a few falls. You hate the thought of leaving behind the life you love, but your family is starting to worry and so are you- so you decide to move to an Aged Care Facility. 

When you get there, the first staff member to greet you is friendly but assumes you can’t hear or understand anything they say. They over-enunciate their words, speaking at a volume much louder than you need. The next staff member speaks to your family members instead of you, referring to you in third person despite your efforts to join the conversation. When you later ask a staff member for help to turn on the television, they reluctantly assist you while rolling their eyes, muttering words of frustration about how busy they already were. You make a mental note to avoid asking for help again.

As the day goes on, a physio comes to see you.  They conduct extensive testing without much explanation and throw around jargon that you can’t keep up with. Afterwards, you see them talking to a staff member outside your room. “This one’s a faller”, you hear them say.  They both look irritated- like your being there has inconvenienced them deeply. You feel a sense of doom as you realise this is your new home.

Sadly, this is a common experience for many older adults, whether it be in an Aged Care facility or in the general community. As healthcare professionals who work within the aged population, we have the privilege of truly making positive impacts on the later stages of a person’s life. 

Here are 6 simple ways you can enhance your interactions with older adults to be truly impactful:  

Speak to them as a fellow adult

Just because someone is older in age, this does not make them any less entitled to the same privileges of social regard that we expect to receive in our own lives. Speaking down to an older adult or assuming their shortcomings can be highly demeaning even if you mean well. It can also result in mistrust between the client and yourself, ultimately leading to poorer outcomes.

Take your time

Rushing an older client can lead to higher levels of anxiety and feelings of guilt as well as create or exacerbate confusion. Not only is this distressing for the client- it’s also likely to slow you down further.

Use simple words and summaries

Short, simple commands and sentences, without undermining intellect, can allow for efficient and effective processing of information. A summary of key points of discussion can help further consolidate information, making it more digestible. Feel free to get creative with this (eg. visual reminders, written down list of takeaway points, showing them a video, etc.).

Avoid disctractions

Addressing potential distractions, (eg. turning off the TV, finding a quiet space, timing your session so that it’s not too close to an important phone call or appointment) is an effective way to make the most of your interaction. Be sure to involve your client in the decision making around the removal of potential distractions.

Don’t be dismissive of sensitive topics

Topics like mental health, end of life, sexual health, elder abuse, family issues and social isolation are often considered to be ‘taboo’ in the context of the older population and as a result are often swept under the rug. As therapists, disregarding these issues can be dismissive, insensitive and harmful. Where appropriate, it’s important to acknowledge these issues in a respectful manner, whilst being mindful of intergenerational and cultural differences.

Take the time to listen to your client and be sure to refer them to external sources/ professionals where you feel you will need to reach beyond your own scope of practice (eg. GP, social workers, mental health professionals, educational resources, etc.).

Appreciate diverse needs

Being aware of diverse needs (ie hearing impairments, speech impairments, visual impairments, cultural diversity) and adapting accordingly plays a crucial role in effective communication. It’s important to educate yourself on the culture or needs of your client and utilise external resources (eg. interpreters, different modes of communication) where needed. With sensory impairments- ask the client what they find works well for them.


To summarise (like you would with your older clients), by taking the time to implement these principles into your work, not only are you enhancing the health outcomes of older adults, you’re also likely to be creating a positive impact on what could otherwise be a very challenging stage of life for many.


Department of Health. Victoria, A. (2015, October 5). Communicating with older people who have diverse needs. Department of Health. Victoria, Australia.

Lakke, S., Foijer, M., Dehner, L., Krijnen, W., & Hobbelen, H. (2019). The added value of therapist communication on the effect of physical therapy treatment in older adults; a systematic review and meta-analysis. Patient Education and Counseling, 102(2), 253–265.

Robinson, T. E, White, G. L., & Houchins, J. C. (2006). Improving Communication With Older Patients: Tips From the Literature. Fam Pract Manag, 8(13), 73–78.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, January 23). Talking with your older patients. National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/talking-your-older-patients

About the author

Cici is a physiotherapist who joined the KEO Aged Care team in June 2023. She commenced her career as a Grade 1 physiotherapist working across various rehab and hospital settings before joining KEO in the hopes of exploring the community and aged-care space. Her diverse clinical experiences across multiple sectors have instilled in her a strong passion for optimising client outcomes through person-centered care, and therapeutic client-practitioner relationships.

Cici’s specific area of interest lies in working with older adults, as she finds this to be most rewarding. Having garnered strong relationships with elderly family members throughout her life, the aged-care space holds a special place in her heart.