Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Constructive Conversations - How to Talk With Your Senior

Over and again, I hear people say, "I just don't know how to talk to my mom/dad/grandparent/elderly loved one anymore."  Popular conversations with seniors center on their health concerns and physical ailments - and/or the ills of others in their circle.  Other common topics include the weather...death and and/or inheritance...feeling alone and neglected...and bowel movements. I get it!  If you rehash these same topics every week with your loved one, you may be reaching the end of your rope!

So what can we do?  One solution is to re-set the conversation divert attention and distract with other topics that are more pleasant/interesting.  This can be done without insulting your loved one, and will have to listen to a fair amount of talk about a sore hip or how Aunt Susie can't hear a word that is said.  But you can often make some subtle shifts in the conversation topics that make the difference between a pleasant phone call/visit and one that leaves you needing a stiff drink!

When my husband's family gathers at his mother's house, the conversation runs along some pretty predictable lines.  We go through all of the grandchildren and what is happening with their schools and extracurricular activities.  We talk about any "news" from relatives who live out of state. And then, the discussion generally turns to stories about people most of us don't know, as one relative or another relates things that are happening in their own lives with their circle of friends and acquaintances.

While this conversation might be mildly interesting to my 90-year-old mother-in-law for a little bit, it doesn't hold her attention very long.  And frankly, it's not all that fair to her.  When we visit, SHE should be the center of attention.  So my husband tries to get his mother to talk about her childhood...her parents, grandparents and on the farm in in a boarding house in Iowa City while attending high school...his dad's stint in the Navy...and pets they owned as kids, to name a few topics.

My mother-in-law's memory for things that happened a long time ago is fantastic.  She can recall dates and details...and it's like she is transported back in time - and takes us with her!  This is good for her...and good for us and the grandchildren and great-grands!

When my grandmother was still living and able to talk, I would call her a couple of times a week or more.  I also spent most of the day on Fridays with her going to the beauty shop, grocery shopping, and running any other errands that arose.  So there were chances for conversation by phone, in the car as we traveled, and sitting in waiting rooms at doctor's offices more. 

Generally, I would try to tell her all of the cute things that the children had said and done.  As we would travel out of town to doctor visits, Greg would ask her questions about the area, and she would point out locations that triggered a recollection, such as "I picked many a strawberry in that field," or "That's where old Uncle Matt and his family lived," or "We lived there when I was about 12, and we would walk several miles to school and "singings" at church."  She enjoyed the trip down "Memory Lane," and we learned a lot about my grandmother's childhood. 
Once my grandmother lost most of her ability to speak, "conversing" with her was truly a challenge. So I would try to think of "news" to share with her when we visited.  Again, cute stories about the little ones were always a hit.  I avoided talk of people she knew who might be doing fun/exciting things -like "I saw Ruby at the swimming pool last week"...and word of the ailments and infirmities of others.  On the phone, I always tried to steer clear of questions like "What's new?" or "How are you today?"  She would tell me anyway, but if I could keep the conversation going in another direction, there was less chance of the tone taking an unpleasant turn.  I tried to think of a few things to tell her - or ask - before I ever picked phone.

The thing that always seemed to be a big hit with my grandmother was my sewing.  My Mam-ma was an amazing seamstress and quilter.  So I would take the little garments I made for my nephews, nieces and cousins and show them to Mam-ma. She would finger the stitches and ruffles and smile brightly.  Her eyes would grow wide with joy and pride...and she would gesture that she remembered when SHE used to do this sort of thing.  In fact, I would say, "I don't know how you managed to make those tiny Barbie dresses for my sister and me."  And she would beam with pride.

We also talked about birds that gathered at her feeder outside the window - and birds that I had seen at our house...dishes that I had made - especially with her recipes...and Greg's latest projects.  My grandmother was always interested in what the men were doing...and this line of talk opened the door to remember my grandfather and dad and the work that they did.

My grandparents are all gone are my parents. I think about the conversations we shared, and talks I have now with my mother-in-law and other elderly loved ones.  And I've come up with some thoughts and suggestions that might be helpful...

  • You don't have to call EVERY DAY.  My pastor told me once that "'No!' is a complete sentence!"  He was absolutely right.  For all of my grandmother's talk that "I haven't seen a soul in days," there was a virtual "revolving door" of visitors at her house/apartment on any given day.  I saw her on Fridays - and often through the week.  There was no need to call her EVERY DAY...until the time came when we had to call each day to make sure she took her medicine.  And then, the conversation was brief and generally directed toward said question.
  • Think of a few things to discuss/ask BEFORE you call or visit.  If possible, take a photo or memento to discuss when you visit.  I recently spent some time with an elderly cousin and took some pictures of my great-grandmother and her contemporaries, in hopes that she could identify those in the photographs.  This sparked a really fun conversation about "old times" and gave us something to discuss.  I also took her cookies from the recipes of my grandmother and the woman's next-door neighbor.  This was another starting point for a good conversation about recipes and cooking.
  • Be prepared to listen to your loved one's litany of ailments and complaints...but set a mental time limit.  Use your pre-planned questions/activities as a way to steer the conversation in a different direction.
  • Don't be afraid to simply sit in silence.  Some of my best "conversations" with my Mam-ma Polly were times we sat in silence on the front porch at her Assisted Living Facility and rocked in the sunshine.  We watched people come and go...we looked at the clouds and felt the warm breeze...and we were together...and that was all she needed.
  • Don't be afraid to call and say, "I just have a minute, but I was thinking of you and wanted you to know."  Every conversation doesn't have to be lengthy...and probably shouldn't be!
  • Shift your attitude.  I remember how much I dreaded the phone calls.  I knew that I would get an earful.  But once I developed a "game plan," and mentally prepared myself NOT to get frustrated or upset, everything went much better.  Yes, there were days when I hung up the phone, shook my head and laughed at some of the things that were said.  But that was better than wringing my hands and gritting my teeth! (And yes, there were still days when this happened, regardless of what I said/did.)

The bottom line is that this, too, shall pass.  And you will long for your loved one's voice - even if it is to chastise you that "you don't do enough for me," or "I haven't been to the bathroom in three days."  We never want to disrespect our elders or make them feel like their thoughts and feelings are not important.  Sometimes, we have to simply listen to them talk.  But that doesn't mean we can't at least have a plan to steer things in another direction.  The end result might just be that the phone calls and visits become more pleasant.

If you have questions or comments, I would LOVE to hear from you. Please weigh in, and let's start a conversation!

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