If we are lucky, it is going to happen to every one of us…. Aging! Not only will we age in calendar years but our bodies and minds will age in physical years despite our best efforts. Along with these changes come the way people react to us. They will begin to treat us differently… sometimes in good ways….sometimes in not-so good ways. As with any other person who is different from us, we often use avoidance rather than acceptance. For the elderly, this can feel like abandonment that is neither deserved nor warranted.

How respect is shown to elders varies from culture to culture. It is customary in Japan to bow when greeting anyone however when greeting the elderly the bow is lower, more pronounced and reverent as a sign of respect. In Italy, it is customary to show respect for the elderly and to value their personal dignity as they age. Traditionally, family elders are to be the first to enter a room and children are taught to stand when adults first enter as a sign of respect. Filipinos show respect to their elders through mannerisms, gestures and language. This includes parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, acquaintances and even strangers. It also includes a sibling or cousin who is 5+ years older than themselves.

In the United States, while each individual family, community or region may have specific customary signs of respect, there is not a nationwide tradition that is regularly practiced. Teaching our younger generations the practice of common courtesy to all is critical however when we are interacting with the elderly there are things we need to take into consideration.

It is a different world

While some elders have kept up with the changing times of our society, many are still leery. This may make them seem intolerant to say the least. Consider this, when they were growing up people often lived in communities that were culturally specific. Italians all lived in one area (as did Puerto Ricans, Germans, Chinese, etc.) so this meant that your butcher was Italian, your banker was Italian and your doctor was Italian. If you had a death in your family and the neighbors saw the hearse at your home they immediately knew what traditions would be carried out. On Ash Wednesday no one questioned the “smudge” on your forehead. While it was not a very diverse way to live it was the way at the time. Consider what a big adjustment it must be for some who live in independent living facilities, assisted living or nursing homes with a resident population that rivals the diversity of the United Nations.

Terms are confusing

Dementia, Alzheimer’s and other terms for diminishing mental capacity are common diagnoses however these are not familiar terms for many elderly. When they were younger and their elders were suffering from these illnesses it was often referred to as “senile” or even “crazy.” As you can imagine those terms came with a stigma. Not to mention that the treatment for such illnesses was often to be “put in a home” where stories of wild “therapy” was often feared.

Slow down

A rule of thumb to remember is “one level slower than the elder.” This applies to everything. When interacting with the elderly, let them set the pace. Walking….slow down and keep one pace slower so they do not feel rushed. When assisting with a wheelchair, keep the pace slow. While you are certainly capable of brisk walking it is ill advised. If you walk quickly you will notice that your elder will begin lowering their eyes or their head. It would be comparable to us being on Mr. Toads Wild Ride. Pushing the wheelchair at a slower pace will create a more relaxed outing and the elder will continue to actively look around and take in the sights. Speaking… the pace a person speaks is the pace they process thoughts. By continually speaking faster than a person can process your words, you will cause confusion, frustration and ultimately end up with a communication fail. Also be sure to speak loud enough. This is done through trial and error. If you still see a confused look or are getting no response then try again. Continue until you are at a volume that allows your elder to have a normal conversation. Out of respect to the elder we need to communicate effectively at their pace and volume.


We always hear that giving of our time is one of the best gifts that we can give someone. This not only relates to how often we visit, how long we stay but also in how we interact. When speaking with the elderly it is respectful to give them time to think. Do not finish their sentences in an effort to speed up the conversation. Share one thought at a time to eliminate overload. For example, if you are talking to your colleague you may say, “Would you like to go to lunch? We could go to Cafe ABC or Restaurant XYZ.” No problem. However, by asking an elder the same question you are likely to get an awkward silence followed by them asking you to repeat the questions. By breaking down the communication and giving them time to process you will create a much more natural flowing conversation. “Would you like to go to lunch” should be followed by a pause and await a response. If the answer is yes then the question of where to go to lunch should also be broken down. “Would you like to go to Café ABC” should also be followed by a pause and await a response. While this seems like it will take a lot more of your time, the exact opposite is true. They will process your questions much more quickly and they will feel as if they are an active participant of the conversation and not being spoken “at.”

Abraham J. Heshel once said,

A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.

Today, let us vow to treat our elder family, friends and strangers, with dignity and respect. Let our younger generation learn by not only our words but by our examples. It is in our best interest to teach them well. After all, they will be the adults in charge when we are lucky enough to become the elders.