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U.S. Department of Health and Health Services
Quick Guide to Health Literacy and Older Adults
Illustrative logo for Strengths of Older Adults chapter
Strengths of Older Adults

Understanding that older adults have significant strengths can help you as you assist older adults with issues related to health and health literacy. Research informs us that cognitive impairment is not an inevitable part of aging. In fact, older individuals typically use experience, wisdom, and a positive attitude to successfully navigate life challenges and changes.1

Health care professionals, communicators, and caregivers can help call attention to older adults' strengths. Your assistance may help empower older adults to take more control over their health decisions.

What You Can Do

Starter Tips

Acknowledge older adults' strengths.

  • Focus on the interests of older adults and what they can contribute.

Encourage activity.

  • Think of the brain as a muscle that needs to be exercised to stay in shape.
  • Encourage both mental and physical activity, as well as challenging leisure activities.
  • Encourage older adults to put their energies toward their own interests and to finding new interests.

Facilitate strong social networks.

  • Staying in touch with others can keep older adults from feeling isolated.
  • Research has shown that having support networks may improve health.

Encourage older adults and their family caregivers to ask questions.

  • Emphasize the importance of understanding information and directions from health care providers.
  • Create a shame-free environment where older adults feel free to ask questions and stay informed.

References for this table: 1,2,3


  • Questions Are the Answer is an initiative from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. It encourages individuals to improve their health care by asking questions and seeking information about the health issues that affect them. Visit the site online at
  • The Mature Mind, by Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., discusses research and theory on the aging brain, including analysis related to stereotypes and myths about older adults.

A Note on Cultural Competence

Older adults are as culturally diverse as any group. It is important for professionals working with seniors to recognize and be respectful of cultural differences, including race, gender, nationality, and religion. For more information on following these principles, see the Quick Guide to Health Literacy.

A Note on Navigating the Health Care System

The health care system alone can pose significant challenges to older adults. Take note of resources available to help seniors communicate with health care professionals, sign up for needed services, and learn about their care. For example, the National Institute on Aging has several helpful publications online at, including Talking With Your Doctor: A Guide for Older People and Choosing a Doctor.


  • Health literacy problems affect millions of Americans.
  • Seniors face special challenges related to health literacy.
  • Older adults' cognitive abilities do not decline inevitably.
  • You can take specific steps to improve health communication with older adults.
  • Older adults are valuable resources.


  1. Information in this section based on Cohen, GD. The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. New York, NY: Basic Books; 2005.
  2. Heaney CA, Israel BA. Social Networks and Social Support. In Glanz K, Rimer BK, Lewis FM (Eds.), Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research and Practice. 3rd Ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2002.
  3. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Questions Are the Answer. Available at Accessed July 2007.
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