Tips for Answering Questions

Many of our experts ask: "What makes a good answer?" It varies by the topic and the specific question, of course. But here are some general guidelines:

  1. Answer the question quickly and directly.

    To that end, summarize your answer in the first sentence, if possible. Example:

    Q: If my mother runs low on funds, will Medicaid still pay for nursing home care?

    A (not good): Medicaid, which is a federal program, provides medical and long‐term care for people with low income and few assets (no more than a few thousand dollars). The exact level of income and assets varies somewhat from state to state; the value of a home the applicant lives in does not count in determining assets...

    A (much better): It depends on her income and other financial assets at the time she applies. In general, ...

    Confine your answer to the scope of the question and resist giving too much background or broader context, but do feel free to link to broader "overview" articles on when you'd like to encourage readers to learn more on the given topic.

    Keep in mind, however, that automatically creates hyperlinks to many broader topics. For example, if your answer mentions "Alzheimer's," the "back-end" system will insert a link to the broader content area.

  2. Be helpful.

    As much as possible, offer practical, actionable advice. If someone is asking how to get a new Medicare ID card, for example, give specific steps to take. In general, make it as easy as possible to solve the problem. If you are sending them to a government website, for example, help them tailor their browsing, as in: "To find the proper probate court, do a search using 'probate' and the name of the city or county."

    Keep in mind that the people using, for the most part, are extremely busy, feeling overwhelmed by the burdens and stresses of caregiving. If we can solve a problem for them, they'll really appreciate it.

    Example of an actionable Ask & Answer:

    Q: How can I get a replacement Medicare ID card?

    A: It's actually Social Security that issues the cards, so you have to contact them. There are two ways to do it. To get a replacement card online, go to the special Medicare replacement card page on the Social Security web site. Or, you can call the Social SecurityAdministration at 800‐772‐1213 and ask for a replacement card. Once you make a request, it takes about 30 days for the replacement card to arrive in the mail.

    Whether you request a replacement card online or by phone, you'll need the following information handy.
    a. Your name exactly as it appears on your Social Security card
    b. Your Social Security number
    c. Your date of birth
    d. Your place of birth
    e. Your mother's maiden name
    f. Your phone number…

  3. Be understanding.

    Show you care. Readers will be more likely to value your advice if you show some empathy. Acknowledge in some simple way that you understand what they're going though. (This is obviously more important when dealing with a question about hospice, for example, than when dealing with a question about how to get a new Medicare ID card. Use your judgment.)

    While being empathetic, resist the temptation to insert yourself into the answer, as in: "I experienced that same thing when taking care of my mother." Be mindful that people have often used their last free moment to pose the question, and will want an answer that focuses on them and their problem.

    Also, resist the temptation to correct the person posing the question. If you suspect they are using the wrong term, briefly explain the meaning of the right and wrong one. Example of an anwer showing appropriate empathy:

    Q: What are some tips for a long distance caregiver to a dad with pancreatic cancer? When my parent is 5 hours away by plane, how do I give them the support and the care they need?

    I am an only child, my parents are half the continent away from me and my Dad just got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (stage IV). With response to treatments and life expectancy unknown, what are some guidelines on trying to figure out my time helping and caring for my parents? Planned dates, tickets already bought for periods of time?

    Take one day at a time is the way they say they want to do things, and I do understand the value of that. But I have a school‐age child and a working husband, and the costs of airfare alone prohibit me from making last minute trips.

    A: Any late stage cancer demands attention. The median, or average, survival rate of pancreatic cancer patients at this stage is 8‐12 months. Those months will bring continual debilitation and loss of independence for him.

    Immediately you should:
    a. Identify two people in his city and yours (outside family) that are willing and able to assist in personal or medical issues. This is a short‐term commitment and you may not need to call on them, but knowing they are
    there will give you peace of mind.
    b. Determine what is needed in both places and what you can do, physically and financially. Keep in communication via phone and email.
    c. Set priorities and stick to them. Your dad may go into the hospital the day of your child’s school play – go to the play. Understand if you are part of this process you will be managing two distinct parts of your life and you
    are likely to miss out or fall short in either part.
    d. Plan dates you will be there, and buy tickets in group purchases, if possible, to get a volume discount. Many airlines will code your ticket for date flexibility if they know you’re caring for a cancer patient. Can you visit every six weeks or so for the next few months and slightly more often after that?
    e. Research what hospice and respite programs are available to your father, mother and your family. As his condition worsens, he will likely need assistance daily. Many of these programs are covered by insurance. Find out your options and choose what’s best for you and your dad. This will be difficult – make sure you have an outlet for your own stress so that you can still be a loving, effective mother, daughter and wife.

  4. Handle references to your books and websites deftly.

    The bottom line is that any answer you give should leave a user feeling that you have his or her best interests in mind--not that you're simply trying to hawk your wares or services.

    Our audience is smart. If you put their interests above your own, they'll be more likely to buy your books, use your website or sevices than they would if you put your interests first.

  5. Talk directly to the person asking the question.

     Keep it conversational; aim for the same tone as you would in real life. Example: If the question discusses "my mother," be sure to address the user directly, referring to "Your mother..."

  6. Feel free to link to other helpful resources, whether on or elsewhere on the web.

    However, please don't link to our direct competitors (other commercial eldercare sites).

  7. Do pay attention to both the ratings that users give your answers and to community members' answers.

    You'll begin to see, over time, what our users are looking for from us and from you.


  8. Don't diagnose.

    It's okay to address health issues in general terms, but never okay to offer a specific diagnosis or treatment plan. 

  9. On the other hand, don't simply say "see a doctor."

    Yes, everyone should see a doctor for specific health questions. But our users already know that. They're looking for anything we can tell them before they see a doctor or to help them decide whether to see a doctor. The key, again, is to offer clear and actionable information that leads users to take practical next steps. If it's not possible to provide any information, then 'reject' the question. Then, can ask the user to resubmit the question and provide more detail.

  10. Break up your answer into easy-to-read parts.

    Avoid long blocks of text.  Things that work well include:

    • Bulleted lists
    • Numbered lists
    • How-to steps
    • Short paragraphs
    • Mini-subheds (If X..., If Y...)

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