by Robin Bush, ISR Communications

Conversations engage us in the life of another person. By conversation, we mean talking, not texting, tweeting, or instant messaging. One thing we discover is talking with someone older often takes being creative to find topics that will draw them into a conversation. 

When my grandmother moved in to live with us when I was a teenager, she’d sit in the rocking chair in the living room and blankly stare across the room. I’d come into the room and say hello, and she’d brighten up on seeing me, but then it was hard for me to know what to say next. Questions like “How are you?” went nowhere. “Fine” was all she’d say. I didn’t know how to reach wherever she had withdrawn to. If only I had known how important it was to ask questions that she’d enjoy talking about. I would have learned so much, and she would have felt good knowing I wanted to listen to her. Those would have been conversations worth having.

Do you have an older person in your life that you want to engage (for their sake and yours), but it’s hard to get them into a conversation? Here are a few questions that can get tongues rolling (you can always start with, “Hey, I’ve been thinking and wondered…”):

  • What was life like when you were 5, 10, 15, or 20? – This is broad, so follow up with questions about their family or friends or places they lived or about their school or town based on how they answer. Follow their lead.
  • Did you have a nickname, and how did you get it?
  • What was your first job, and what was it like?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What were your favorite things when they were younger, and what are your favorites today?
  • What were your most fun activities at different times in your life?
  • What event would you most like to see if you had a time machine?
  • If you could go back in history, who would you like to meet?
  • What games did you play with friends?
  • If you could have a superpower – what would it be?
  • Who inspired you most in your life?
  • What words of advice do you wish someone had told you?
  • What’s the biggest lesson you learned?
  • What were some of the biggest challenges you have overcome?
  • Where did you meet your spouse, significant other, or childhood best friend?
  • Who was your first love, and how did you meet?
  • Where did you travel? 
  • What’s the biggest change you experienced in your life?

Remember, conversations with someone older may have a different rhythm.  Some older adults (but not all) may speak slowly.  Let them set the pace. Choose a quiet place to talk without conflicting background sounds like a TV or radio; that helps people of all ages to focus on what is being said. Talk about things that make them happy, be friendly, and when it’s time for your visit to end, remember to tell them how much it meant to you to hear what they had to say.