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?
"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?