Talking With Your Older Patient: A Clinician's Handbook
Considering Health Care Perceptions
Understanding Older Patients
Obtaining the Medical History
Encouraging Wellness
» Talking About Sensitive Subjects
Supporting Patients With Chronic Conditions
Breaking Bad News
Working With Diverse Older Patients
Including Families and Caregivers
Talking With Patients About Cognitive Problems
Keeping the Door Open
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National Institute on Aging > Health > Publications > Talking With Your Older Patient: A Clinician’s Handbook
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Talking About Sensitive Subjects

Caring for an older patient requires discussing sensitive topics. You may be tempted to avoid these discussions, but there are helpful techniques to get you started and resources to help.

“Many people your age experience similar problems.”
At age 80, Mr. Abayo was proud of his independence and ability to get around. But, when he came to see Dr. Carli for a regular exam, he acknowledged that the trouble with his shoulder had started after he collided with another car at a four-way stop sign. “Many of my patients are worried about being safe drivers,” Dr. Carli said. After the exam, she spoke with Mr. Abayo and his son in her office. She told them that a lot of her older patients had decided to rely on family and friends for transportation. She gave Mr. Abayo a pamphlet on older drivers and the number of a local transportation resource that might be helpful.

Many older people have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship with health care providers about some problems, especially those related to sensitive subjects, such as driving, urinary incontinence, or sexuality. Hidden health issues, such as memory loss or depression, are a challenge. Addressing problems related to safety and independence, such as giving up one’s driver’s license or moving to assisted living, also can be difficult.

You may feel awkward addressing some of these concerns because you don’t know how to help patients solve the problem. This chapter gives an overview of techniques for broaching sensitive subjects, as well as resources for more information or support.

Try to take a universal, non-threatening approach. Start by saying, “Many people your age experience . . .” or “Some people taking this medication have trouble with . . .” Try: “I have to ask you a lot of questions, some that might seem silly. Please don’t be offended . . .” Another approach is to tell anecdotes about patients in similar circumstances as a way to ease your patient into the discussion, of course always maintaining patient confidentiality to reassure the patient you are talking to that you won’t disclose personal information about him or her.

Some patients avoid issues that they think are inappropriate for their own clinicians. One way to overcome this is to keep informative brochures and materials readily available in the waiting room. Along with each topic listed alphabetically below is a sampling of resources. Although the lists are not exhaustive, they are a starting point for locating useful information and referrals.

Advance Directives
Advance directives, including “living wills,” can help you honor individual end-of-life preferences and desires. You may feel uncomfortable raising the issue, fearing that patients will assume the end is near. But, in fact, this is a conversation that is best begun well before end-of-life care is appropriate. Let your patients know that advance care planning is a part of good health care. You can say that, increasingly, people realize the importance of making plans while they are still healthy. You can let them know that these plans can be revised and updated over time or as their health changes.

An advance care planning discussion can take about 5 minutes with a healthy patient:

  • Talk about the steps your patient would want you to take in the event of certain conditions or eventualities.
  • Discuss the meaning of a health care proxy and how to select one.
  • Give the patient the materials to review, complete, and return at the next visit. In some cases, the patient may want help completing the form.
  • Ask the patient to bring a copy of the completed form at the next visit for you to keep. If appropriate, share the plan with family members.
  • Revise any advance directives based on the patient’s changing health and preferences.

Be sure to put a copy of the completed form in the medical record. Too often, forms are completed, but when needed, they cannot be found. Many organizations now photocopy the forms on neon-colored paper, which is easy to spot in the medical record.

If your patient is in the early stages of an illness, it’s important for you to assess whether or not the underlying process is reversible. It’s also a good time to discuss how the illness is likely to play out. If your patient is in the early stages of a cognitive problem, it is especially important to discuss advance directives.

For more information on advance directives, contact:

Aging With Dignity
P.O. Box 1661
Tallahassee, FL 32302-1661
888-594-7437 (toll-free)
This group provides an easy-to-read advance care planning document called Five Wishes.

Institute for Healthcare Advancement
501 South Idaho Street, Suite 300
La Habra, CA 90631
A simplified advance directive form written at a fifth-grade reading level in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese can be downloaded for free.

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
1700 Diagonal Road, Suite 625
Alexandria, VA 22314
800-658-8898 (toll-free)
This group provides resources for completing advance directives, including links to each State’s advance directive forms.

Driving Safety
Recommending that a patient limit driving—or that a patient give up his or her driver’s license—is one of the most difficult topics a doctor has to address. Because driving is associated with independence and identity, making the decision not to drive is very hard.

As with other difficult subjects, try to frame it as a common concern of older patients. Mention, for instance, that aging can lead to slowed reaction times and impaired vision. In addition, it may be harder to move the head to look back, quickly turn the steering wheel, or safely hit the brakes. Ask the patient about any car accidents. When necessary, warn patients about medications that may make them sleepy or impair judgment. Also, a device such as an automatic defibrillator or pacemaker might cause irregular heartbeats or dizziness that can make driving dangerous. You might ask if she or he has thought about alternative transportation methods if driving is no longer an option.

For more information on safe driving, contact:

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
607 14th Street, NW, Suite 210
Washington, DC 20005

601 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20049
800-424-3410 (toll-free)
The AARP Driver Safety Program offers classes to help motorists over the age of 50 improve their driving skills.

American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
4301 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 400
Arlington, VA 22203
The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators sponsors this program designed to educate aging drivers and their caregivers.

American Medical Association (AMA)
The AMA offers guidance for physicians to address problems about driving and older adults. For details, download the Physician’s Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers from the website.

Elder Abuse and Neglect
Be alert to the signs and symptoms of elder abuse. If you notice that a patient delays seeking treatment or offers improbable explanations for injuries, for example, you may want to bring up your concerns. The laws in most States require helping professionals, such as doctors and nurses, to report suspected abuse or neglect.

Older people caught in an abusive situation are not likely to say what is happening to them for fear of reprisal or because of diminished cognitive abilities. If you suspect abuse, ask about it in a constructive, compassionate tone. If the patient lives with a family caregiver, you might start by saying that caregiver responsibilities can cause a lot of stress. Stress sometimes may cause caregivers to lose their temper. You can assist by recommending a support group or alternative arrangements (such as respite care). Give the patient opportunities to bring up this concern, but if necessary, raise the issue yourself.

For more information on elder abuse, contact:

National Center on Elder Abuse
Center for Community Research and Services
University of Delaware
297 Graham Hall
Newark, DE 19716
This consortium of organizations provides information about and conducts research on elder abuse.

End-of-Life Care
Most older people have thought about the prospect of their own death and are willing to discuss their wishes regarding end-of-life care. You can help ease some of the discomfort simply by being willing to talk about dying and by being open to discussions about these important issues and concerns. It may be helpful to do this early in your relationship with the patient when discussing medical and family history. Stay alert to cues that the patient may want to talk about this subject again. Encourage the patient to discuss end-of-life decisions early with family members and to consider a living will.

Of course, it is not always easy to determine who is close to death; even experienced clinicians find that prognostication can be difficult. Even if you have already talked with your patient about end-of-life concerns, it still can be hard to know the right time to re-introduce this issue. Some clinicians find it helpful to ask themselves, “Would I be surprised if Mr. Flowers were to die this year?” If the answer is “no,” then it makes sense to start working with the patient and family to address end-of-life concerns, pain and symptom management, home health, and hospice care. You can offer to help patients review their advance directives. Include these updates in your medical records to ensure that patients receive the care they want.

For more information on end-of-life care, contact:

Education in Palliative and End-of-life Care (EPEC)
Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine
750 North Lake Shore Drive, Suite 601
Chicago, IL 60611
EPEC provides physicians the basic knowledge and skills needed to care for dying patients.

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
1700 Diagonal Road, Suite 625
Alexandria, VA 22314
800-658-8898 (toll-free)
NHPCO links to care organizations and the consumer website,

Financial Barriers
Rising health care costs make it difficult for some people to follow treatment regimens. Your patients may be too embarrassed to mention their financial concerns. Studies have shown that many clinicians also are reluctant to bring up costs. If possible, designate an administrative staff person with a good bedside manner to discuss money and payment questions. This person can also talk with your patient about changes in Medicare and the Part D prescription drug coverage plans.

The resources in this section may help when you talk with your patients about their financial concerns. In addition, your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) may be helpful.

For more information on financial assistance, contact:

Medicare Rights Center
520 Eighth Avenue, North Wing, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10018
110 Maryland Avenue, NE, Suite 112
Washington, DC 20002
800-333-4114 (toll-free)
The toll-free consumer hotline provides free counseling services about Medicare, including the prescription drug benefit.

National Council on Aging
The Council’s online resource offers a searchable list of programs that can help with health care costs.

Partnership for Prescription Assistance
888-477-2669 (toll-free)
Many pharmaceutical companies offer reduced medication fees for patients who meet income requirements and other criteria. The website has a directory of prescription drug patient assistance programs.

Long-Term Care
Long-term care includes informal caregiving, assisted living, home health services, adult day care, nursing homes, and community-based programs.

Early in your relationship with an older patient, you can begin to talk about the possibility that he or she may eventually require long-term care of some kind. By raising this topic, you are helping your patient think about what he or she might need in the future and how to plan for those needs. For instance, you might talk about what sort of assistance you think your patient will need, how soon in the future he or she will need the extra help, and where he or she might get this assistance.

For more information on long-term care, contact:

Nursing Home Compare
Medicare provides an online resource with detailed information about the past performance of every Medicare- and Medicaid-certified nursing home in the country.

Eldercare Locator
800-677-1116 (toll-free)
The Eldercare Locator offers referrals to and information on services for seniors.

Mental Health
Despite many public campaigns to educate people about mental health and illness, there is still a stigma attached to mental health problems. Some older adults may find mental health issues difficult to discuss.

Such conversations, however, can be lifesavers. Primary care doctors have a key opportunity to recognize when a patient is depressed and/or suicidal. In fact, 70 percent of older patients who commit suicide have seen a primary care physician within the previous month. This makes it especially important for you to be alert to the signs and symptoms of depression.

As with other subjects, try a general approach to bringing up mental health concerns. For example, “A lot of us develop sleep problems as we get older, but this can be a sign of depression, which sometimes we can treat.” Because older adults may have atypical symptoms, it is important to listen closely to what your patient has to say about trouble sleeping, lack of energy, and general aches and pains. It is easy to dismiss these as “just aging” and leave depression undiagnosed and therefore untreated.

For more information on mental health, contact:

American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry
7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 1050
Bethesda, MD 20814-3004
The Association promotes the mental health and well-being of older people and works to improve the care of those with late-life mental disorders.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
6001 Executive Boulevard, Room 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
866-615-6464 (toll-free)
NIMH, part of the National Institutes of Health, funds and conducts mental health research and distributes information to health professionals and the public.

An understanding, accepting attitude can help promote a more comfortable discussion of sexuality. Try to be sensitive to verbal and other cues. Don’t assume that an older patient is no longer sexually active, does not care about sex, or necessarily is heterosexual. In fact, research has found that a majority of older Americans are sexually active and view intimacy as an important part of life. Depending on indications earlier in the interview, you may decide to approach the subject directly (for example, “Are you satisfied with your sex life?”) or more obliquely with allusions to changes that sometimes occur in marriage. If appropriate, follow up on patient cues. You might note that patients sometimes have concerns about their sex life and then wait for a response. It is also effective to share anonymous anecdotes about a person in a similar situation or to raise the issue in the context of physical findings (for example, “Some people taking this medication have trouble . . . Have you experienced anything like that?”). Don’t forget to talk with your patient about the importance of safe sex. For example, “It’s been a while since your husband died. If you are considering dating again, would you like to talk about how to have safe sex?” Any person, regardless of age, who is not in a long-term relationship with a faithful partner and has unprotected sex is at risk of sexually transmitted disease.

For more information on sexuality, contact:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30333
800-232-4636 (toll-free)

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research
Senior Health: Sex and Intimacy
This website has articles about sexual health and sexuality for adults age 50 and older.

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States
130 West 42nd Street, Suite 350
New York, NY 10036-7802
This organization publishes New Expectations: Sexuality Education for Mid and Later Life.

For some older people, spirituality takes on new meaning as they age or face serious illness. By asking patients about their religious and spiritual practices, you can learn something about their health care choices and preferences. How a patient views the afterlife can sometimes help in framing the conversation.

For example, some patients feel that their fate is in the hands of a higher power, and this may prevent them from making treatment decisions. For patients who report suffering and distress about illness or end-of-life, a referral to a hospital or nursing home chaplain may be helpful.

Clinicians have found that very direct and simple questions are the best way to broach this subject. You might start, for instance, by asking, “What has helped you to deal with challenges in the past?”

For more information on spirituality, contact:

Association of Professional Chaplains
1701 East Woodfield Road, Suite 400
Schaumburg, IL 60173
The Association is an interfaith professional society providing education, research, and certification for its members and web links to many chaplaincy organizations.

George Washington University Institute for Spirituality & Health
2300 K Street, NW, Suite 313
Washington, DC 20037-1898
The Institute recognizes spiritual dimensions of health. Its work focuses on bringing increased attention to the spiritual needs of patients, families, and health care professionals.

Substance Abuse
Alcohol and drug abuse are major public health problems, even for older adults. Sometimes people can become dependent on alcohol or other drugs as they confront the challenges of aging, even if they did not have a problem when younger. Because baby boomers have a higher rate of lifetime substance abuse than did their parents, the number of people in this age group needing treatment is likely to grow.

One approach you might try is to mention that some medical conditions can become more complicated as a result of alcohol and other drug use. Another point to make is that alcohol and other drugs can increase the side effects of medication, or even reduce the medicine’s effectiveness. From this starting point, you may find it easier to talk about alcohol or other drug use.

For more information on substance abuse, contact:

National Clearinghouse for Alcohol & Drug Information (NCADI)
P.O. Box 2345
Rockville, MD 20847-2345
800-729-6686 (toll-free)
NCADI, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, is a one-stop resource for information on substance abuse prevention and addiction treatment.

Urinary Incontinence
About 17 percent of men and 38 percent of women age 60 and older suffer from urinary incontinence. Several factors can contribute to incontinence. Childbirth, infection, certain medications, and some illnesses are examples. Incontinence may go untreated because patients are embarrassed to mention it. Be sure to ask specifically about the problem. Try the “some people” approach: “When some people cough or sneeze, they leak urine. Have you had this problem?” You may want to explain that incontinence can often be significantly improved through bladder training; medication and surgery can also be effective treatments for certain types of incontinence.

For more information on urinary incontinence, contact:

American Foundation for Urologic Diseases
1000 Corporate Boulevard, Suite 410
Linthicum, MD 21090
866-746-4282 (toll-free)
The Foundation provides information on the prevention, detection, management, and cure of urologic diseases.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)
3 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3580
800-891-5390 (toll-free)
NIDDK, part of the National Institutes of Health, distributes publications on urinary incontinence and provides links to resources and support groups.

The Simon Foundation for Continence
P.O. Box 815
Wilmette, IL 60091
800-237-4666 (toll-free)
The Foundation provides information about cure, treatment, and management techniques for incontinence.


In Summary
  • Introduce sensitive topics with the “common concern” approach: “As we age, many of us have more trouble with . . .” or “Some people taking this medication have trouble with . . .”
  • Keep educational materials available and visible to encourage discussion.
  • Raise topics such as safe driving, long-term care, advance care directives, and end-of-life care early, before they become urgent matters.

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Page last updated Dec 31, 2008