Communicating with Seniors

By Barry Spiegelman

Delivering and receiving critical information by telephone is an especially challenging proposition when an elderly caller is on the other end of the line. Whether the impediments are technological, physiological, or psychological, or a combination of all three, telephone communication with seniors requires an elevated level of skill, attention, and patience.

While the younger generation is busy applauding the convenience, mobility, and personalization new telephone technology brings, this same wonderment is often viewed quite differently by seniors. As a rule, older people are less at ease with technology (although it will be interesting to see what happens when the baby boomer generation – who propelled the computer and microchip generation – hits 65). To most seniors, the smaller, faster phones with their buttons and gizmos can present a daunting challenge. Encountering his son’s new voice mail system, a friend’s elderly father said depressingly, “It says ‘press one.’ I don’t have that kind of a phone!”

Keeping up with 21st Century phones, which seem to change daily, is just one of the communication challenges that face older people every day. Not only have the instruments themselves become more complex with added digits, layers of calling “services,” and multiple lines, but the perceived benefits of all of these “improvements” are negligible to many elderly persons whose telephone needs are very simple. While the abilities and deficits of elderly callers vary enormously, seniors can also find the telephone challenging because of physical or sociological factors. These could include:

  • Hearing loss, which may interfere with both speech and comprehension. By age 65, up to half the population may experience some hearing loss.
  • Diminished vision and mobility, which may create obstacles to dialing, following phone prompts, and writing or reading notes.
  • Strokes, accents, or even ill fitting dentures, which may complicate even the simplest verbal communications.
  • Memory loss, dementia, and age-related attention disorders, which may cause a caller to lose the thread of conversation, forget to ask important questions, become frustrated and angry, repeat themselves, or even fall asleep in the course of a call.
  • Loneliness and isolation, which may cause callers to engage in lengthy discussions. For those living alone, the telephone is their essential connection to community.
  • Social or cultural norms, which may lead the caller to avoid discussing problems directly.

Frustrating as they are to the older people themselves, these problems also create daily challenges to unprepared telephone operators or call center agents at the other end of the connection. That makes the capacity to learn and practice effective communication techniques one of the most important skills for all telephone service personnel.

Based on nearly two decades of experience answering more than 15 million calls, many from the elderly, The Beryl Companies has learned the four most essential ingredients to communicating with seniors over the phone:

  1. Anyone who talks to older people on the telephone must remember that patience is an essential tool. Patience means listening carefully, empathetically, not rushing the speaker or jumping to conclusions, and never finishing the caller’s sentences for them. It means reducing distractions and keeping track of what is said during the call. Patience also means not interrupting; the smallest interruption may prevent the caller from completing or returning to their original thought.
  2. Effective communication relies on careful, thoughtful speech. This involves not only taking more time, speaking slowly, and enunciating clearly, but also paying special attention to vocal quality. If an elderly caller is agitated, their voice may rise in pitch and volume. Unconsciously mirroring that tone or being drawn into the caller’s agitation can quickly turn a helpful call into a confrontation.
  3. Eliciting complete and accurate information from an older caller may require special probing skills. Questions may need to be asked, rephrased, and asked again, and the answers paraphrased and reconfirmed. Callers also need to be queried whether they have any lingering questions or concerns before the call is ended.
  4. While respect is an essential component of all telephone service, with older callers, additional measures of respect include using titles such as Dr., Mr., and Mrs., is particularly important. At the same time, be careful to avoid patronizing language or tone. It can be picked up quickly and not appreciated.

Call centers can do their part to aid in the communication process by providing their call center agents with special training specifically focused on speaking with seniors. Through increasing awareness of the nuances inherent in telephone communication with this audience, these agents (at Beryl we call them “call advisors”) can heighten their sensitivities, enhance their skills, and keep their own stress level down. Most important, they can be much better prepared to be of true service the next time the phone rings and an elderly person’s voice is on the other end.

At the same time, older callers can do their part to assure a more productive phone conversation as well. Much of it comes down to simply planning ahead. Here are six suggestions for call center agents to share with their elderly callers:

  1. If possible, make important calls in the morning, when sleepiness is less of a problem
  2. Write down questions before placing the call.
  3. Employ whatever aids are available such as eyeglasses, magnifying devices, hearing aids, and amplified telephone headsets.
  4. Reduce background noise and distractions; a TV or radio may interfere with both hearing and concentration.
  5. Take notes during the call and ask for copies of important instructions by fax or mail.
  6. Finally, if understanding or being understood is a problem, ask for help from a family member or caregiver.

Today’s impressive communication devices provide for instantaneous contact anywhere on the planet, but they don’t assure perfect understanding and don’t guarantee good communication. If an older person has difficulty communicating or following instructions, their lack of compliance is not intentional, nor does it indicate a lack of intelligence. If both parties to the call observe a few measures of planning, patience, and respect, the phone can be the conduit for a productive and satisfying exchange of information. Ultimately, isn’t that what everyone on both ends of the line is seeking?

Barry Spiegelman is co-founder and Chief Customer Officer of The Beryl Companies, which, since 1984, has provided a comprehensive range of outsourced call-center solutions to more than 500 businesses nationwide.

[From the Spring 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]