Effective Communication

Utilizing tools for effective communication is a foundational component of access to justice for older adult litigants. Judges and courtroom personnel should assume older adults are credible unless otherwise demonstrated.

Ms. C, a Spanish speaking older adult with hearing loss and a history of trauma, experienced sexual and financial abuse by her intimate partner and was seeking relief through the court system. Ms. C had significant trouble hearing and understanding the proceeding. She frequently interrupted, speaking loudly. Not understanding Ms. C, the judge interpreted her actions as disruptive and inappropriate outbursts, raising capacity concerns.

These communication barriers and misunderstandings dramatically impact the experience of the older adult and potentially the outcome of the proceeding.

Tools for Effective Communication

  • Maintain a calm and respectful tone
  • Utilize appropriate interpreters for older adults with limited English proficiency and those who are deaf or hard of hearing (see also: UCS Benchcard and Best Practices for Judges)
  • Establish eye contact before speaking
  • Speak slowly and clearly, but do not over-articulate or shout
  • Use short, simple sentences
  • Sit close and face-to-face, when appropriate
  • Ask if the older adult is having difficulty hearing or seeing
  • Check in periodically to ensure the elder understanding
  • Understand that a support person may be helpful in effectuating communication
  • Explain the trajectory of the proceeding
  • Rephrase the statement if the older adult is having trouble understanding
  • Ask the older adult to rephrase if having difficulty understanding the older adult
  • Offer breaks
  • Use trauma-informed sensory tools (see also: Trauma Informed Practice Tips)
  • Schedule time certain appearances
  • Seek to accommodate medical needs, including use of bedside or hospital hearings
  • Seek to accommodate fluctuations in capacity and mental alertness when calendaring cases
  • Be clear about next steps, including upcoming court dates and required actions, and identify future barriers

Tools for Communicating with Older Adults Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • Utilize microphones, pocket talkers, or other auditory amplifiers
  • Utilize appropriate interpreters (see also: UCS Benchcard and Best Practices for Judges)
  • Consider whether written communication is more appropriate
  • Utilize visual cues and ensure the older adult can see lips and hand gestures when speaking
  • Do not over-articulate or shout, which can distort sound
  • Speak in a lower pitch
  • Minimize background noise (reduce background conversations, phones, etc.)

Tools for Communicating with an Older Adult with a Visual Impairment

  • Adjust lights to increase brightness and reduce glare
  • Provide documents in large print and double space
  • Allow extra time for the older adult to refocus on changes in brightness or distance
  • Be aware of limited fields of vision
NYC Training Project: Courts (Jan. 5, 2005).
UCS Benchcard and Best Practices for Judges, NY State Unif. Ct. System (2015).
Trauma Informed Practice Tips, The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Justice at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale (2019).
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