Sunday, May 19, 2019

How Do You Talk to Old People?

     B and I visited her former father-in-law last week. He's 94 years old and lives in an assisted-living facility. He's one of those rare men who outlive their wives. The two of us were bringing him out to lunch.

     Usually, when we go to see him, it's in a family group. He has three daughters (along with his son, B's husband, who died almost 20 years ago). B and I usually greet him warmly, say hello how are you, make some light, casual chat. But we don't really talk one-on-one.

     So in the car on our way over to his place, B and I discussed how we would engage him in conversation. What could we talk about that he'd be interested in?

     Two of his daughters live nearby; the third lives out west. She'd recently visited, and we knew the three daughters had recently gone to visit their old family home in New Jersey. Maybe we could get him to talk about the old neighborhood, tell us a story about the kids. Maybe he'd open up a little about his past life. It would give us something to keep the conversation going, and it might be interesting.

     So we arrived. He was waiting for us at the door. We drove over to the restaurant, helped him out of the car and settled into a table. B and I each ordered a sandwich. He went for a full, hot meal. He is used to three squares a day in his assisted-living cafeteria.

     We exchanged our usual pleasantries. We talked a little about his children, his grandchildren and now two great-grandchildren. Then I mentioned that his daughters had told us they'd visited their old home, and posted a few pictures online. So ... is that where they grew up?

     "Oh, yeah."

     "So, how long did you live there?"

     "Ah, let me think. It was my wife's house. She grew up there."

     "Yeah . . ."

     He stared at us.

     "So," B ventured, "your oldest daughter and her husband were high-school sweethearts, right?"

     Pause. "Yeah, that's right."

     Well, you get the idea. Talking about the past was like pulling teeth. I don't know if he didn't remember much, or if he just didn't want to talk about it. I thought maybe he just didn't talk very much at all anymore, living in the facility by himself, without his wife.

     But as soon as we dropped the questions about his family and moved on to the subject of the activities at his assisted-living facility, he suddenly became very voluble. He told us about his poker game, and his pinochle game, and the exercise class he takes. He waxed enthusiastically about his meals. They got a new grill in the kitchen, and he says now the pancakes in the morning are much better -- lighter and fluffier and tastier.

     So, obviously, I'm got giving any advice in this post. I'm asking for help. I remember as my own parents got older, trying to get them to talk about their younger years, but they were never really interested. I only ever got the bare outline and a few anecdotes.

     Is my experience typical? If so, how do you get old people to open up and talk about their younger years? Many of them led interesting lives, I'm sure. Maybe they were immigrants. Or they grew up on a farm. Or were in the military. They had jobs, owned businesses, lived lives that were very different from ours.

     It seems a shame to let all that history just die with them. So how do we get them to remember their stories and share them with us?


Juhli said...

Obviously I don't know this man but many people just don't think or talk about the past. They are more present or future focused. All I can suggest is to talk with him about what he has always liked to talk about. Sports, news, interactions with people at his facility, food ...? My FIL and Mom both continued to talk about what they always had. For my FIL that was golf, news, the latest book he was reading and complaints about the food. For my Mom it was food, news, books, movies, her past and worries about the future.

gigi-hawaii said...

Well, he does not have dementia, because his short term memory is very good. As for the distant past, maybe it's too much work recalling it and discussing it at great length.

Kathleen said...

I think this is very common as my Dad and step mom too mostly talked about their assisted living, the food, the weather, the flowers, etc. My siblings and I decided to try an interview technique which actually worked quite well. We asked open ended questions with a very specific timeframe initially. Example, Dad, you flew planes in WWII. Can you tell us about that? We are interesting in preserving your stories for the family....My brother would go a step farther and ask if he could record him talking. OF course, my brother works for a NPR station too... But, recording him seemed to perk him up. Good luck- it is a struggle as their lives shrink more and more! Kathleen

Debby said...

My Father-in-law will open up about his past when he looks at old pictures. He lives in a CalVet facility. Other than that, he basically talks about the goings on at the home.

DUTA said...

People who've been predeceased by an adult child (especially an only son or an only daughter) are usually difficult to talk to about the past, as they are changed - a before and after version. Perhaps B. should have visited him alone.

Tom said...

Gigi, no, he doesn't have dementia. but you might be right. And DUTA, good point I hadn't thought of before (and my parents also had a son who predeceased them.) But we got over the "alone" issue 15 years ago ... when he was surprisingly welcoming and even friendly to me.

Janette said...

Pictures! that seemed to be the key for us as well. Even I have a difficult time isolating events and times. If you live in a house for 50 years- which event would you talk about?
I've started to write down some of my antics. Have you?
We are the older generation now.

DJan said...

Interesting to think about what one can do to get an old person to talk about his/her past. I notice that many parts of my life that I thought I would never forget have faded and I find it hard to do more than make small talk about it myself. And I'm only 76. :-)

Linda Myers said...

I have an 89-year-old friend who loves to talk about the past, when asked about it. And the present! I expect she's always been an energetic, curious, involved woman.

When my mother was in her final years I could ask about her life, but she was vague on many issues. She liked to talk about when she was in the Marine Corps, how she met my father, some of her travels. I guess the focus for me was in eliciting stories from her that she liked to talk about, rather than what I wanted to know about.

But she talked to my son about things she would never discuss with me!

Anonymous said...

I think that in later years, some people just kind of distance themselves from the long ago past. My mother talked about her youth and childhood throughout her life, but in her final years, she was totally uninterested in that topic. If we want to preserve the memories, I think we need to start long before people are in their 90s. At that point, I think we just have to roll with it when conversing with elders, offering different topics to see what might spark a conversation.

Olga said...

I do wish I had more of an effort with my own parents. In my family that whole generation is gone now and I didn't have a clue that I might develop an interest in their history until it was too late.

Barbara said...

Another interesting subject. My Mother died of cancer in her early 80s. She was pretty coherent and talking until the end. But I think what you said about living alone and not speaking could definitely be a factor. Maybe the past isn't interesting anymore if the person is only thinking about enjoying what they have left. I don't know if B's FIL is typical but at least now you know what interests him.

Arkansas Patti said...

Just yesterday I saw something that reminded me of my favorite grandmother and I was feeling so sad that I hadn't probed more into her history. The sad thing is that she was always eager to talk of past times. I just needed to prod then listen. But we can't make them tell us stories if they don't want. Like you did, find what they are comfortable talking about, prompt, then listen. Think you did just right.

Janis said...

I imagine that everyone is different and is comfortable/uncomfortable about various topics of conversation. I'm glad that you were able to navigate to a subject that appealed to him. That being said, now that I've lost both parents, I really wish I had asked more questions, and that I was smart enough to write their memories down when they were alive. I can't tell you how many times I've regretted not knowing bits and pieces of family history.

Red said...

In my case , I started asking questions too late. Much of it he'd forgotten. Only the odd bit came out and that was a surprise. Out of the blue he told me how he started dating my mother or rather how my mother started dating him. Keep asking those questions.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, it is easier for two old people to talk than for one of us old people to try to carry on a meaningful conversation with a younger person. Why? Because two oldsters have an easier time tossing the conversational ball back-and-forth. Most of us don't like to be interrogated; but, we are happy to exchange memories with others.

For instance: with the younger generations of my family, we have run out of conversation within 30 minutes, but with my brother, we can talk all night. He triggers my memories and I trigger his - not at all like being asked a question, cold. Too, I sometimes think younger people think they are being "kind" in getting us to talk - that they don't really have an interest.

Talk about what interests you, but cede the floor when the older person has a contribution, is my advice.
Cop Car

Kathy @ SMART said...

Hi Tom! I have no advice for you. But like many of the others I wish I had talked more and asked a lot more questions of both of my parents. Now that they are gone I have many more questions but no one to answer. That is definitely something that NEVER occurred to me when they were alive. Oh well, such is youth! ~Kathy

David @iretiredyoung said...

I'm not qualified to give advice, and I guess everyone is different. However, your post put a smile on my face as it reminded me of conversations with my wife's grandfather. He lived to a ripe old age, and for the last few years was in a care home.

He loved telling stories of his younger days, when he courted (his word) his wife, life during the Second World War, rationing, past cars and holidays and the like. His politics were "interesting" and very politically incorrect (we couldn't believe it when he told our son that "the only good conservative is a dead conservative" - we assume he was joking!). As he got older the visits got funnier. He told risqué jokes and stories as he held court - those visits were a blast.

His funeral is next week - is that sad? In some ways it is, but he'd be so chuffed that we're smiling in remembrance as we write this.

Kay said...

This is very different from my mother whose short term memory is sometimes a bit shaky. Her long term is crystal clear though. You have such an interesting blog, Tom. Thank you so much for your visit and comment.

Wisewebwoman said...

I had much the same experience gathering memories from the elders of the town I was mayor in. I was about 20 years younger and they really didn't want to share even though I'd heard their stories from others of their era. It was the oddest thing. They turned every question on to me and my life and my doings. And responded yes or no or not interesting to questions about schooldays or dad's fishing exploits.

I wish, now, that I'd just assembled a bunch of them and had them talk to each other while I listened and recorded. They are all dead now.


Diane Dahli said...

My mother did speak at length about the past once, on a long trip with her eldest daughter and her husband. The motivation was a tape-recorder, of all things! She loved speaking into it and hearing herself on playback. She was also excited to think of one day, having her grandchildren hearing her.

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Bohemian said...

It depends upon the Person... and their Past. Mom loved to talk about her History, which was colorful and full of interesting and Beloved Stories... Dad was so stoic I never knew anything about his whatsoever, Mom told me he'd had a very hard life and difficult hand dealt which he just didn't dwell on nor dredge up. That said, as I've grown Older I find that my interests are more Present based and a Mindfulness of living fully in the Moment so that is where most conversation just is, with anyone of any age when conversing. Sharing is so deeply personal I think it is specific to each Individual how much, or how little, they are comfortable with and with whom.

Donna said...

My father liked to talk about his time in the service during World War 2 on horn island/Australia and my mother liked to talk about her early childhood when her father was still alive and not so much about the difficult years after he died. She had good long term memory but bad short term memory. I always let them talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.

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