Whether you’re a caregiver with a new client or a family member who wants to keep your loved one engaged in the world, you may sometimes find it difficult to keep a conversation going with an older adult.
While caregiving begins with basic physical needs, personal interaction is nevertheless critical to keep seniors from getting depressed and lonely. According to the National Institutes of Health, research links social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for various physical and mental conditions, including hypertension, heart disease, obesity, immune deficiency, panic attacks, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and even death.
“Being socially connected is our brain’s lifelong passion. It’s been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years,” said Matthew Lieberman, author of the “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.”
Of course, before you can properly connect with the older adult in your life, the lines of communication have to be open—primarily by ensuring the person you’re talking to can hear and see you. What you may think is disinterest could be a problem with a hearing aid, a missing pair of glasses, or background noise. A chat is unlikely to work if, for example, you’re in the kitchen washing dishes and they’re sitting at the table a few feet away. Instead, pull up a chair, face your senior, and speak clearly and directly so they hear what you’re saying and can see the expressions on your face—and so you can see how they’re responding to you as well.
Best conversation topics for older adults
Now that you know how to have a conversation with an older adult, what should you talk about? Especially for caregivers, there seems to always be a steady stream of maintenance topics—like what’s for lunch and when to take medications. But caregivers need to acknowledge and get to know older adults as people, not just responsibilities. It’s a little easier for family members, but adjusting your expectations can be daunting, including acknowledging that the person you love has challenges because of their age.
Some older adults may find the new and different – things like music, cultural shifts, fashion – interesting and will be interested to learn why Taylor Swift, for example, is enormously popular or why androgynous style has become the norm. However, others may find the new and different intimidating or overwhelming, so it may be best at first to stick with topics that will draw out your older adult and encourage them to talk about their life. In a study done at Cornell University, reminiscing has been shown to boost mental capacity.
Topics that may encourage engagement include:
- What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up?
- Who was your first love?
- How did you propose to your wife/how were you proposed to?
- Who’s your best friend? How long have you known them?
- Were you close to your grandparents?
- What are your children like? What are their names?
- Do you have grandchildren?
- If you could give one bit of advice to a young adult, what would it be?
- What was your favorite job?
- What did you study in school?
- If you could have done anything you wanted to earn a living, what would it have been?
- Who was the best person you ever worked for?
- How many jobs did you have?
- What was your first job out of school?
- What’s your favorite piece of art or decorative object in your home?
- What sport did you love, or do you still love?
- Do you enjoy reading? What kinds of books are your favorite?
- What are some of the best movies you’ve ever seen?
- Have you been to the theater? What plays have you enjoyed?
- Do you like museums?
- What’s your favorite kind of music?
- Who is your favorite band or singer?
Conversations go both ways
If you want to get to know an older adult, let them ask you questions, too. As a caregiver, you may not feel comfortable getting too personal, but sharing a bit of yourself will make the older adult in your life feel at ease with you and understand who you are, which can make it easier to establish a connection. If you’re fortunate, you may discover you have a lot more in common than you think.
Some days it may be hard to get your senior to talk, and other days it may seem like the conversation never stops—which can be a lot of work. Either way, keep the conversation going to ensure you get information about how your senior is feeling each time you’re with them. Pay attention to how they speak, how well they comprehend what you’re saying, and whether they respond or are not entirely present. Getting to know your older adult personally will help you determine how they’re doing medically and emotionally in the future.