We’ve all no doubt been in a situation where we struggle to find things to talk about with our elderly relatives, friends or neighbours. In most situations, it’s easy to fall back on safe and fairly unremarkable topics such as the weather, the current situation in the world or politics. But limiting your conversations to these topics will prevent you from making genuine and heartfelt connections with others. If you only stick to safe and boring, you’re missing out on funny, insightful, interesting and meaningful. Genuinely listening to an older person is one of the best gifts you can give them, and is likely to enrich your life as well. A great conversation can be both informative and invigorating for the listener, and both exciting and comforting for the speaker. And it can be even more so when the person you’re talking to has decades of life experience, memories and knowledge to bring to the conversation. Connecting on a personal level has the added bonus of making older people feel happier and healthier, and the benefits of social connection cannot be overstated.
General tips for conversations with older people
- Focus on one topic at a time, rather than jumping around between several.
- Give them your full attention.
- Be patient if they speak slowly; let them speak without interrupting.
- Choose a quiet place to talk, with few competing sounds that might be distracting.
- Make sure both of you are comfortably situated before starting the conversation.
- Use physical items as conversational aids, such as photos or mementos. Pick a photo you find interesting and ask them what they remember about the photo. You might even be able to find photos online of historical events they are describing.
- Keep the conversation going by asking questions such as, “What happened next?”, or “Can you tell me more about that?”
- Practice active listening, such as nodding, and smiling at appropriate times.
What not to do
There are a few things that it’s better to avoid when talking to older people:
- Don’t give unwanted advice.
- Don’t be condescending or use “elderspeak”.
- Don’t change topics too quickly.
- Don’t assume all older people have hearing problems – check to make sure they can hear you properly.
- Don’t interrupt or rush to fill in a word they may be struggling with.
- Don’t make yourself the focus of the conversation.
- Don’t redirect them if they go off on a tangent – they might have another interesting story to tell.
- Don’t be distracted or focus on another task while having the conversation.
Coming up with topics to talk about can be a challenge sometimes, and it can be easier to approach the conversation prepared. Try some of these conversation starters to help begin a thoughtful, entertaining or heartfelt conversation with a senior relative or friend.
- How did you meet your spouse? What made you think they were the one?
- What did you do on your first date?
- How did you (or your husband) propose?
- What was your wedding dress (or your wife’s wedding dress) like? What do you remember most about your wedding?
- What do you remember about being pregnant?
- Why did you choose your children’s names?
- What do you remember most strongly about your parents? Your siblings? Your grandparents?
- What did your siblings call you?
- What rules did you have to follow growing up? Did you agree with them?
- What’s a favourite holiday you took as a family? What made it so good?
- What traits do you think you inherited from your parents or grandparents? What traits do you think I (or other family members) have inherited from you?
- What family traditions would you like to see continue?
- What’s the best thing about being a parent? A grandparent?
- What’s the best advice your parents gave you? What’s the best advice anyone gave you that you’ve remembered all your life? Did you listen to the advice? If not, do you wish you had?
- Is there anything you wish you had asked your parents?
Interests and Hobbies
- What books have you read lately? Which ones would you recommend I read?
- Where would you like to go for a holiday, if money or time were no object?
- What’s something you were really good at as a child? How about now? What’s something you always wished you were good at?
- What did you want to be when you grew up? Do you regret doing that/not doing that nowadays?
- How do you like to spend your days? What’s the best part of your day usually?
- Are there any new skills you would like to learn?
- What’s something you always wished you could do – but didn’t? Would you do it now if you could?
Personal and memories
- What piece of advice would you like to pass onto others now?
- Who did you admire when you were growing up? Who do you admire now?
- What moment in history do you vividly remember? Did it change your life?
- What’s your most embarrassing moment from childhood?
- What are you most proud of having achieved?
- What is the hardest lesson you learned throughout your life?
- What do you hope people will remember you for?
- What slang was popular when you were a teenager?
- Who was your first crush?
- What did you do for fun as a child?
- What do you think is the biggest change in the world from when you were a child to now?
- Do you think technology has changed the world for the better?
- What’s the hardest thing about growing older? The best thing?
- If you could have a superpower, what would you choose?
- What’s something that made you smile today?
- Where were you born? What do you remember about the town or city you grew up in? What was your childhood home like?
- What was your first job?
- What is your earliest memory?
- What was the best day of your life?
- If you were granted three wishes, what would you wish for?
- What’s a goal you achieved that you’re really proud of?
- What things in life did you think were most important when you were younger? What about now?
- What has stayed the same throughout your life and what has changed the most?
- What have been some of the most influential moments of your life?
- Do you like your name? Why or why not?
- If you could use a time machine to go back to any time in the past, what would you choose?
- If you could meet anyone from the past, who would it be?
- What games did you used to play with your friends?
- What did you buy with your first paycheck?
- What would you change about the world today?
- How old were you when you got your first TV? What did you think and how did it change your life?
- Who is the person who most influenced your life?
- What were the happiest moments of your life?
- What’s are your favourite movies of all time?
- What’s your favourite song or singer?
- What’s your absolute favourite food of all time?
- What’s your favourite thing to cook?
- What was your favourite age? Why?
- What was your favourite thing to do as a child?
- What is your favourite childhood memory?
- What’s your favourite colour?
- What’s the best place you ever lived in? What made it so good?
- What’s the best job you ever had?
- What’s your favourite quote or saying?
- What’s the best compliment someone ever gave you?
- What’s your most treasured possession?
- What’s your favourite season and why?
- What was your favourite pet?
- What was your favourite subject at school?
These topics are likely to engage your senior friend or relative, and the conversations that result have the potential to be a gift to both of you. Sharing memories and telling stories can deepen the relationship with your older friend or relative, and give you some fascinating insights into their thought processes and their past. You might even like to document some of their answers, either through voice recording or a written record, to ensure these memories and stories are not lost. Either way, these conversation starters will get people talking, and will thus strengthen and deepen the bonds of the relationship.
Click here to read more about how to make an older person’s day.