What is the first thing you say to your parents when you see them? How do you start a conversation with an elderly friend or neighbour?
Chances are you ask them about their health – not that there is anything wrong with showing concern for their well-being, but it’s easy to fall into the habit of letting that define all of your interactions with them.
It’s fine to ask how they are; we all do it with almost everyone we meet. How they choose to respond to the question is up to them, and if they are suffering from a particular ailment they will most likely fill you in.
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It begins to become a problem, though, when our conversations with seniors become only about their state of health and nothing else. Even if they are housebound or bedridden, surely we can find more interesting topics to include in the exchange.
I began to think about this after overhearing an acquaintance on the phone to her elderly mother. This is what I heard:
‘How did you sleep?’…pause.
‘Have you eaten breakfast?’…pause.
‘Did you remember to take your tablets?’...pause.
‘Well, why don’t you go and sit outside for a while? It’s a nice day, but don’t stay out too long.
‘OK, ‘bye. I’ll call you tomorrow.’
While it was admirable that her daughter was checking in on her and showed concern for her well-being, I couldn't help but wonder how the mother felt about the conversation. It took all of two minutes for the exchange and was more like an interrogation than a conversation.
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I wondered if all of their conversations were like that. Was her mother’s health the only thing to talk about? Would her mother have wanted to know how things were going for her daughter at work or how the grandchildren were getting on? Did she want to talk about something other than her own health?
I thought about what it would be like for me when I’m elderly and my children phone me up. I’d like to think that we would have more to talk about than my heath, even if it’s only about a book I’m reading or a movie I just watched on TV. I guess that if my memory was failing and I needed a reminder to take my pills or eat a meal, then I’d be grateful for my children’s calls, but I hope to goodness that all of our years together would give us something more to talk about.
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I interact with a lot of seniors in my job, and I’m always interested to learn about the person underneath the grey hair and wrinkles. There are always interesting stories and it’s great to see them light up when you show a genuine interest. I also always make a point of complimenting them when they look good or are wearing something new. It often sparks a good conversation and it shows them that I value them as a unique individual.
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Perhaps we should all think about that the next time we interact with our elders. Don’t let their age or state of heath define the conversation. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes and show some warmth, humour and genuine interest in the other facets of their character.