skip to Main Content

Helpful Ways to Communicate Health Literacy with Older Patients

Helpful Ways To Communicate Health Literacy With Older Patients

Literacy is a vague term that means the ability to read, write, speak and do math. Being able to do these skills affects a person’s ability to access information and perform daily tasks. In the medical world, health literacy, or the ability to not only obtain but comprehend health information and services needed to make necessary health decisions, is crucial. Health literacy can be difficult to communicate to certain patients, specifically elderly patients, but, in order to reduce costs, being able to communicate it is a must.

Why is Health Literacy So Important?

Health literacy is an important part of providing quality healthcare. Poor health literacy is often responsible for patients being admitted to the hospital with conditions that could have otherwise been avoided with preventative measures. In turn, this drives up healthcare costs. Older adults, in particular, are more likely to have a hard time understanding health information.

As patients get older, their cognitive abilities begin to suffer, presenting challenges with managing the many conditions they may have. They may have difficulty reading literature, following directions, or even understanding what is happening to them. Being able to communicate with them in a way that makes sense is imperative for ensuring their health.

Helen Osborne of healthliteracy.com, president of Health Literacy Consulting, and author of Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition offers a few suggestions on how to help your older patients.

Understand the Difficulty

One of Osborne’s first suggestions is to understand, appreciate, and have compassion for just how difficult it can be for older patients to understand health information. Older adults often have more health issues and, as a result, take more medications. Not only that, but older patients may be sick, in pain and/or scared, not knowing what is happening to them. All of these factors affect their ability to pay attention to what you are telling them, and they may not be able to remember any new information you may provide them with.

Use “Plain” Language

Getting older has a significant impact on one’s life. Hearing and sight get worse, and the memory starts to go. Many older patients are afflicted with Alzheimer’s. These changes mean changes in the way information is processed and communicated. Which, in turn, means that you need to change the ways in which you communicate with them. Language should be kept plain and simple. Osborne offers a few suggestions: large print for written instructions, enunciate when speaking and make sure that there is good lighting and no distractions in the room.

Encourage Questions

Just like any patient, older patients may have questions in between appointments. However, these patients will have a much harder time remembering those questions when the day of their appointment arrives. Any question is an important one, so you want to make sure they get all the answers they need. Encourage your patients to write down their questions in a special notebook that they can then bring to their appointments. And, to take it one step further, provide them with paper and pens (as well as a clipboard) to write down notes.

Help Keep Track of Medications

You prescribe your patients with medications for a reason. But older patients typically require more medications than their younger counterparts. Certain medications can have side effects, or interact poorly with others, so keeping track of any and all medications is important. Help your older patients by providing them with clearly written instructions on when and how to take each medication. It can also be helpful to have your older patients use a pill box with all medications presorted for the week.

Understanding the health information and services that are required to make important health decisions can be tough for older patients. But it doesn’t have to be. With a bit of patience and extra attention you can help your older patients understand the information they need and help them to get the best care possible.


Need help communicating with older patients? Contact The Midland Group. Our one-touch solution establishes a personal connection between your organization and patients. Contact us today to learn more.

Back To Top