For my entire life, I have lived in a three-generation home. Always having a grandparent around, I’m very comfortable interacting with older adults. Going into the field of geriatric social work, then, seemed like a perfect fit.
But many of my classmates were resistant to working with older adults out of fear of being tongue-tied. Most dreaded the thought of sitting with an older person and having nothing to say. They were impossibly grasping for ways to relate to a person so different from them.
What I tired to make my classmates realize is that seniors are simply older people. They are vibrant, dynamic individuals. And, if anything they have even more to talk about! Decades of experience bestow so many older adults with a wisdom many younger people could benefit to learn from.
Regardless, many people are concerned they will “run out of things to say” with an older adult.
If visiting an older loved one or working with the elderly, here are some strategies to help start the conversation…and keep it going.
- Use open-ended questioning – It’s actually true that our brains change with age. A decrease in cells that regulate “get-up-a-go” means the older brain shows a slight decrease in taking in and using new information, making hard facts and minute details difficult to retrieve. Try avoiding direct questions to kick off a conversation. Asking questions that demand a specific response can be inhibiting and embarrassing for the person if they can’t remember. Unless you’re sure the topic is something that the person is interested in recalling or exploring, start with open-ended questions that can emerge into other topics as you go. Keep in mind; the older brain is better at grasping the big picture and seeing life from a broader perspective [tweet this!]. Invite your parent to join in the conversation without demanding a “correct” memory. Indirect questions can also help get a flow of dialogue moving. Remember, there is no “right” answer – The point is to connect in a way that honors the experience and wisdom of the older person. Practice using the 4 W’s (Who, What, Where, When, and How) to reframe direct statements as questions: “What was the best vacation you ever took?”; “Who did you most admire as a child?”.
- Accentuate the Positive – Take a tip from Bing Crosby — Start with a positive observation about the person. Research shows when in a positive mindset, engagement and creativity improve. Seniors can greatly benefit from the so called “happiness advantage”, which can have physical and mental benefits lasting days. With an upbeat voice, give a kind –but genuine—remark (“You’re looking very energetic today!”). Avoid vague inquiries like “How are you today”, which could invite a litany of ailments or complaints. Replace with an exclamation of or some positive (and authentic!) observation.
- Use prompts – Once I worked with a client struggling through the early stages of dementia. He was a reserved man, who spent most of his traveling regions throughout the tropics for his military service. To stimulate our conversations, I brought photo books about the Caribbean to our meetings. This simple object was enough to generate hours of conversation. The visuals helped my older friend tap into memories and experiences that were delightful to share.
- Be patient – Some older adults tend to consistently talk about the same one or two topics. While it sometimes signals memory loss or dementia, most is a natural expression of what’s important to that elder in their life right now [tweet this!]. Validate his or her concerns by listening authentically. If you find yourself annoyed by the repetition, find ways to cope such as deep breathing or flexing your fingers or toes. However, if the person is ruminating, be willing to change topics. For example, one old woman I worked with complained other women in the facility negatively gossiped about her. When she paused, I re-directed her focus. I highlighted that she enjoyed dinner every evening at a table surrounded by her large group of friends. As she appreciated this reality, she cheered up considerably.
- Read aloud – Reading to an older person can be a powerful way to connect. All types of narratives provide room for deeper discussion. Choose material based on the person’s interests: Is your Mom very spiritual? She may find solace while you read aloud Bible passages. Is your client a lover of rugged Western tales? How about a few chapters from True Grit? Your voice alone can be a soothing, comforting source. Reading to the older person provides companionship without putting undue pressure on both parties to consistently generate new conversation.[tweet this!]
- Find out what makes them smile – We all love to talk others’ ears off about our hobbies, families – things we love. When starting a conversation with an older person, ask what they enjoy [tweet this!]. Topics such as asking about their favorite foods, television shows, movies, books, and music are a great place to start. Take a look around their room to guess what the person might like. Do they have awards for a special achievement hanging up? Are the walls covered in pictures of their grandchildren? Is their bed decked out in hand knitted blankets? Focus and build upon what brings this person joy
- Talk about the past – Reminiscence is a very important therapeutic mechanism for older adults. Many older people find joy in talking about events in their past. You can ask about their childhood, first love, jobs.
Still need help? Here’s a few questions you can use to the break the ice when talking to a senior:
- Do you have a favorite animal [food, color, song]?
- Where did you go to school?
- What was the first job you ever had?
- When you were little, what was your neighborhood like?
- What is your favorite type of music?
- What are you most proud of?
- How did your military experience shape your life?
- How many grandchildren/children do you have?
- When you were a kid, what did you do for fun?
- What makes you happy?
- Growing up, what were some fads you remember [hairstyles, clothing, dances]?