How to get old people to talk to you

When I worked with elderly people, especially retired farmers or the veterans of WWII, I used to urge them to write or tell their stories to someone, because they would be of interest to future generations. None of them were enthusiastic about the idea. Some found the task overwhelming. That much concentrated mental exercise can be exhausting. Some of them just didn’t believe that they had anything interesting to say – no one would care. Some were too sad or too bitter to review it. Some of them felt that it was none of my business. 😉

A note here: I worked for an agency that provided care for elderly people. For the purpose of this article, I am talking about men and women who are over 90, usually in need of some physical or medical assistance and often living alone in their own homes or in assisted living facilities or nursing home. Comfortable company is a blessing to them, and they are glad to have someone to talk to, but conversation is often difficult. When you talk to an elderly person in this situation, remember that you are talking to an intelligent adult, addressing them with dignity and respect, but they may need help hearing you and time to formulate a response. Speak clearly, but not too loudly. Do not speak directly into their ear. Position yourself where they can see your face and read your lips to assist their hearing. Unless you know that their hearing is excellent, do not try to carry on a complex conversation while you are pushing their wheelchair or from another room. Give them time to respond. Don’t change the topic too quickly.

Most people like to talk about themselves if they are not put on the spot. Don’t ask them to come up with a story, but coax one out of them by asking simple questions, cued by observation. Don’t rush them or chatter. Don’t tell them about yourself unless you are very briefly agreeing with them, and then return immediately to their story. Obviously, don’t write things down while you are talking to them!

Photographs are helpful for this. Of people: “What a pretty girl! Is this her high school graduation picture?” “This boy looks excited about his bicycle. Was it a birthday gift?” “Is that a naval uniform? Do you have a tradition of military service in your family?” “Is this your wedding picture? Your wife was very beautiful. You look so young. Where did you get married?” Of places: “Where was this taken? Did you vacation there? Live there? Was this your farm? Did you live there all your life? What did you farm?” Things: “Wow! That’s a really neat car! What is it? Was it yours?” “What kind of dog is that? He’s so big! Was he yours? Was he nice? What did you call him? I’ve heard they need a lot of room to run.”

I said earlier that you should not tell them your own story while you are trying to encourage them to tell you theirs, but sometimes it keeps the conversation going.

You: “This is a beautiful old church. Did you go there?”
Man: “That’s Calvary Lutheran. My father built that church.”
You: “Oh, I’m Lutheran, too! Where is Calvary?”

You showed him that you were engaged in his story, but you don’t tell him all about your own church. Same with dogs.

You: “Is that a dalmatian? We had one of those! Her name was Suzy.”
Woman: “That’s Maisie. I had her until she was hit by a car ten years ago.”
You: “Oh that’s awful!”
(if the conversation stalls out)
You: “Maisie had a lot of spots! Was she a purebred?”

The best stories segue from simple conversations. Once, I asked a WWII nurse if she had been a nurse before she went into the army or if she had trained while she was already there. She told me about signing up with a few friends from her nursing school and taking a bus down south to where she was starting her army service. She told me it was her first experience with open racial prejudice and Jim Crow laws. She was shocked and wrote home about it. She said she received her one and only letter from her father then. He told her that racial prejudice was a sin and the laws were wrong. She went on to tell me about growing up in a racially diverse community. Her father was a butcher and treated everyone the same, with respect, and he was respected by everyone in return. She told me about his shop and the other shopkeepers nearby.

Later, I mentioned something about her father (maybe as I was preparing meat for her dinner). She talked about dinner at her home, saying that family devotions were held promptly after dinner and everyone was expected to be there. If there were guests in the house at the time, they were expected to join them for devotions. She said that she and her siblings were careful to invite their friends over for the time between devotions and bedtime. They sat on the porch and sang and talked. They wanted their friends to leave on time, however, because at 10:00, their father came through the house in his long johns, carrying a lantern and closing up the house for the night. It was very embarrassing for them, if their friends were still there!

Be attentive, but don’t pressure. Don’t interrupt. Only say as much as you need to, to let them know you are listening and interested. Don’t distract them with your own story or by changing the direction of their story. Encourage, but never push. Elderly people of the Greatest Generation have lived through an era of extreme change. Many of them plowed behind horses or grew up without electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing. They might have had an 8th grade education and gone on to become successful businessmen. They might have traveled the world before it was made simple by airplane. They had newsreels and newspapers instead of television and the internet (although they probably enjoyed those when they came along!)

Time is passing fast for this extraordinary generation. Soon we will lose them, and our children and grandchildren will only hear the the dry facts of history in their textbooks. Encourage our elders to talk now, while they can, so we can portray them accurately, as flesh-and-blood humans, to future generations.

3 thoughts on “How to get old people to talk to you

  1. You are right about the need for stories. My dad is nearly 85, and he loves to tell stories. I’ve asked him to write some of them down or make a recording, but he hasn’t. I hate the thought of all that history lost. My mother passed away five years ago, and she recorded most of her life in daily diaries from her early teens. At least we’ll have one side of the story!

    When you mentioned the nurse, I thought about a patient my daughter talked about. (My daughter works in a palliative care unit.) This nurse had dementia, but she was the the director of nursing back in her day… and she kept asking my daughter if they had rolled all the bandages. That opened up some tales about how different hospitals are now from times gone by….

      • I kept a diary when I was young, but I don’t know what happened to them. I’ve kept journals off and on for years, but nothing regular. My daughter has all of her diaries and journals, though…. My mom’s diaries are primarily a record of the weather, sports scores and daily events. More than 60 years worth. After she died, my dad read through them (they’d always been off-limits while she was alive). He found much comfort in her words…

Comments are closed.