Connecting with the seniors in your life can sometimes feel difficult as they continue to age. This is due to a variety of reasons that can include hearing challenges, communication difficulties, chronic pain, and cognitive decline. Any of these factors can decrease their attention span and make having conversations a bit more difficult.
Fortunately, you can still have meaningful moments with your aging loved one. You just need a few tools that can make the interaction more successful.
Having the right conversation starters can make chatting over dinner or while waiting together for a physician appointment easier. Here are a few of our favorite tips that will help you and your entire family create good conversations.
How to Talk to Elderly People
Speaking to seniors is, of course, similar to speaking to someone your own age. However, there are a few ways you can improve your listening and speaking skills, which can make a conversation more meaningful.
First, remember that communication is both listening and speaking. Often, a family member goes into a conversation as the main speaker, leaving the senior to listen most of the time. Instead, ensure you are giving plenty of speaking time to your loved one.
Offer encouraging words so that they continue with their story or point of view. To keep them talking, try saying, “Tell me more about that.” Or ask, “What happened next?”
Practice active listening so that they know you are a captive audience. Nod your head, smile genuinely, and resist the urge to multitask while they are speaking. Instead, give your full attention to the conversation at hand.
Be patient. Your loved one might become distracted, have word-finding difficulties, or face other speaking challenges.
Instead of hopping right in to say what you think they wanted to, take a deep breath and wait. Silence can feel awkward, but if you embrace it, you’ll often find that your loved one just needed a beat before starting their story again.
When possible, ask open-ended questions to get a conversation started. These are questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”
Instead, these questions will spark more conversation because they require a more detailed answer. Try the phrase “tell me about ...” to get them started.
Conversations can be challenging for someone who has a hard time distinguishing background noise. Ensure your conversation is happening in a quiet spot and that your loved one has their hearing aid (if they have one) in place.
If there are a few people in the conversation besides you and your loved one, be sure everyone is speaking in turn. Having multiple conversations about multiple topics happening around a table can be distracting, which might cause your loved one to check out of the process.
Finally, if you don’t agree with your loved one’s opinion during a conversation, resist the urge to argue. Instead, see if you can just redirect the conversation to something that will leave you both feeling peaceful.
Don't Do These When Speaking to the Elderly
Effective conversations with seniors are similar to effective conversations with people your own age. You want to take turns listening and speaking, honor the opinions of one another, and share memories. However, conversations can turn ineffective with the wrong approach.
Here are a few bad practices that can lead to poor responses:
- Don’t assume every older adult has hearing challenges. Resist the urge to speak loudly and instead check in to ensure they can hear you.
- Don’t have a conversation while you are doing the dishes, cleaning up, or focusing on another task.
- Don’t stand up while they are sitting down. Instead, get at eye level before starting your conversation.
- Don’t interrupt. Remember, silence doesn’t have to be awkward.
- Don’t redirect if your loved one starts talking about a subject that isn’t directly related to the question you asked. You might learn something new from the story they are choosing to tell.
- Don’t make yourself the star of the show. Although you are certainly a part of the conversation, try to keep the focus on your loved one instead of jumping in with too many of your own stories.
- Don’t be afraid to use physical items to move the conversation along. Use photos or objects that might spark new conversations.
Conversation Starters for the Elderly
Conversation starters are simple questions or statements that can get your loved one talking. Having a few to pull out during car rides, during visits, or while waiting for appointments can ensure you are always offering the opportunity for your loved one to share a memory, opinion, or recommendation. Here are some examples of conversation starters that might inspire you as you think of your own.
Talk About Their Childhood
Speaking about childhood can often bring feelings of peace and comfort. Even better, when you ask the right questions, you might end up hearing a story you hadn’t heard before and getting to know your loved one even better.
- What did your childhood bedroom look like?
- Describe your childhood best friend.
- What was the best thing your mom made that you loved to eat?
- Where was your favorite place to meet friends in town?
- What was your favorite vacation you took when you were a kid?
- What was your favorite subject in school and why?
- Describe your least favorite (or favorite) teacher.
Talk About the Present
You don’t have to stick to reminiscing-based questions when starting a conversation. You can also check in with your loved one by asking questions about the present. Their answers to your questions can give you a peek into how they are feeling emotionally and physically.
- How are you feeling today?
- What has been the best part of your week?
- Are you feeling worried about anything?
- What can I help you with this week?
- How was your visit with your friend who stopped over?
Talk About Life Events
Major life events stay in our memories long after they happen. You can get a new perspective on how your loved one recalls these events by asking them to talk more about their memories.
- Describe your wedding dress (or your wife’s wedding dress).
- Tell me how you proposed.
- Who was your first date? What did you do?
- What kind of celebration did you have at your graduation?
- Tell me about your favorite vacation.
- Do you remember any of your first days of school? Tell me about them.
- Tell me about your pregnancy.
Gather Their Wisdom
Most everyone wants to share their life lessons and leave a legacy for their loved ones. Use this approach for some conversation starters that will allow your loved one to share what they have learned.
- What’s the best advice you received?
- What is the best way to handle an argument with your spouse?
- How should you handle a difficult work situation?
- What’s the hardest life lesson you learned?
Ask for Their Recommendations
Finally you can empower your loved one by asking for their help or their recommendations. You can solicit their advice about a situation you are working through or one on the horizon.
- What’s the best way to wean a baby?
- Where should I plan to go on our next family vacation?
- What’s the best advice for someone who is getting married?
- What’s the secret to a happy and healthy life?
Talk About Their Family
Consider bringing out old family photos and diving into family history that you might not remember or know. Point out specific photos and ask who is in them, where the photos were taken, and what your loved one remembers about that day.
- What do you remember about your grandmother?
- Tell me about your grandmother’s house. What did it look like?
- What was your favorite thing to do with your cousins?
- What do you remember about this photo?
Other Questions to Start the Conversation
Remember, nearly anything can be the basis of a conversation. You’ll love getting to know more about your loved one’s past when you pick some good questions for reminiscing as well. Here are a few more to inspire you.
- What was it like when you first met your spouse?
- What were your nicknames growing up?
- What was your favorite bathing suit you ever wore?
- What were your favorite things to do as a child?
- When you were a kid, what did you imagine your life would be like?
Learn more ideas for recreation and activities your loved one can do on their own or with you by downloading our free guide, The Busy Person’s Guide to Recreation in Retirement.
Here’s to many excellent and enlightening conversations ahead.