As humans, one of the most effective ways that we bond ourselves to other people is through conversation. Developing language allowed our species to plan, build, and conquer, but also to share, love, and assign meaning to our lives. Conversation is the ultimate way to connect with people, and sadly, talking to elderly people is something that many people struggle with, which can make them feel lonely and disconnected from the people around them.
In this article, we’ll provide some help on how to have great conversations with elderly people, which can help to avert feelings of loneliness, and forge friendships for the both of you.
Ask them about their past
Anyone who has lived beyond six decades has experienced a lot in their lives. They’ve likely been gripped by every emotion that you can name, had hundreds of thousands of conversations, and lived through thousands of thrilling moments, making up a life of immense complexity and richness. And they’ll probably tell you all about it, if you ask.
Most of us love talking about our lives, we just need someone curious and attentive who will listen. Whether it’s our careers, relationships, pets, or favourite sports teams, we each have memories and passions that ignite us, which we’ will happily talk about in devoted detail if given the chance. Asking your elderly loved one about their past lives can encourage them to launch into their memories, which according to notable gerontologist and Pulitzer Prize winning doctor Robert N. Butler, can be incredibly therapeutic1.You’re giving them the opportunity for a “life review,” allowing them to reflect on the good and bad times in their lives, and if you’re lucky, you’ll receive a little wisdom on the way.
Ask them about their careers
We spend around a third of our lives working—a huge chunk of time filled with achievement, elation, and frustration. Many people consider their careers to be an important part of their lives, and those who have retired have decades worth to talk about. Even jobs that we might consider boring can be brought to life, provided the storyteller is passionate about his tale. Your elderly loved one might have been the commander of a thriving business that he is bursting to talk about, but hasn’t been questioned about it for far too long. All it can take is a simple question to open the floodgates.
Ask what’s bothering them
“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.”
Life is a slog at times. We all have our problems, and talking about them with someone that we trust can feel as though the world has been taken off our shoulders. This is especially difficult for elderly men who have grown up in a culture of toxic masculinity, which has taught them to bury their emotions instead of acknowledging and accepting them.
When someone asks you how you are, though you might respond with “I’m good,” you probably have a number of gripes that you don’t want to burden them with. Suffering is a part of the human condition, and many of us experience it every single day in one way or another. Talking about our suffering is the basis of therapy, and luckily, we don’t need a doctorate to ask our elderly loved one what has been bothering them. They might not always answer candidly, but when they do, it could be wonderfully restorative.
Make small talk
“It would seem that the variability of the weather was purposely devised to furnish mankind with unfailing material for conversation.”
—Emily Post, Etiquette
Small talk has a reputation for being banal, but it has a critical role to play in building relationships3. After all, few of us would tolerate a stranger who launches into their personal life without first mentioning the weather, last night’s footy game, or saying something predictable like “another day, eh?” Often, we don’t really want to talk about these trivialities, but they happen to be the gateway to more meaningful topics. If you’ve brought your elderly mother’s attention to the wetness of the sky, and have been met with encouragement, you might venture something a little more personal.
As an unidentified great person once said, small talk is the human equivalent of dogs sniffing butts2. It’s a feeling out process that can lead to more meaningful conversation.
Smile and laugh freely
We’ve all met people who are a joy to be around, and they usually have two common traits: they smile a lot, and laugh freely. When we’re talking to someone who exhibits these two things, we’re encouraged to gleefully open up to them, skipping over the small talk and talking about the things that we hold most dear.
Unfortunately, we’re not all zesty optimists who go about like Cheshire cats, and even if we are, not every day can be a good one. But if you’re trying to penetrate the emotional defenses of your elderly loved one, offering the occasional smile or chuckle can help a lot, even if they aren’t genuine. Laughing and smiling are social lubricants that can coax conversation from the most bitter among us, with the potential for tremendous bonding experiences.
Don’t be afraid of silences
Conversation is an act of creativity, and sometimes, we need a few quiet moments to muster something worthwhile. Silence isn’t necessarily a sign that the conversation is waning—it may just be a few moments needed to think of something else. This is especially true for seniors with cognitive impairment, who often need a little longer to respond to a point, or think of something else to say. If conversation with your elderly loved one is peppered with silences, try to get past the awkwardness by remembering that they’re a necessary part of conversation.
Expect old-fashioned views
Culture changes fast, especially in our digital age where every corner of the globe is connected. Racism, sexism, and any other kind of ism may seem preposterous to the younger generation, but many seniors have spent their lives in a culture where these things were normal, making it difficult to shake off their old-fashioned views. If your elderly loved one has opinions that are outdated and a little offensive, try to remember that those opinions were considered acceptable for much of their lives, and that when you reach the same age as them, you may have some views of your own that aren’t so appealing.
While those kinds of views shouldn’t be encouraged, lecturing them will do little but drive you apart.
Choose a quiet environment
If your elderly loved one has extreme tinnitus, and you’re hoping to have a meaningful conversation with them at a busy bar showing the final of The Ashes, you’re setting yourself up to fail. To have a conversation with someone, we need to hear the majority of what they’re saying, and most of us are too polite to ask another person to repeat themselves more than once. Meaningful chats rarely take place in noisy places where you can’t hear yourself think, let alone what the other person is saying. Choosing a quiet environment to have a conversation with your elderly loved one is the best way to connect with them.
Don’t be condescending
If your elderly loved one is suffering from dementia, it’s easy to come across as condescending. Though we may need to talk more slowly, clearly, louder, or stick to simple topics, it’s important for us to tread the fine line between communicating effectively, and being patronising. Try your hardest not to patronise your elderly loved one, as it will damage your relationship with them.
Again, if your elderly loved one is suffering from dementia, their memories, concentration, and moods may not be as good as they once were. To have a valuable conversation, you’ll need to repeatedly dip into your well of patience, and give them the time they need to speak. Patience is a priceless virtue when you’re chatting to someone with dementia, and can be the difference between bonding or withdrawal.
- Marlo Sollitto, 2019, Conversation Starters: 20 Questions to Ask Your Elderly Parents, AgingCare
- Small Talk vs Deep Talk, The Philosophy Forum
- 2019, The Magical Power of Small Talk, Antidotes For Chimps