Each time I dial my elderly friend's telephone number, I take a deep breath in anticipation of what will predictably turn into a thirty-minute one-sided conversation - her side. Having lived 86 years, Bess has a lot on her mind and much to say. From neighborhood gossip and leaky faucets to graphic descriptions of her latest malady, no topic is off limits according to Bess.
Once Bess and I connect, there's not much more for me to do other than patiently listen as she rambles on, and only once in a while do I interrupt with a question or two. And when it's time to say our goodbyes, Bess raves about how much she has enjoyed our conversation. I smile. Time well spent though I hardly said a word.
Bess is a classic example of an older conversationalist - she fixates on subjects relevant to her, she repeats herself and changes topics in midstream, she gossips and finds something negative to say about everyone around her, she speaks her mind and liberally dishes out unsolicited advice. No doubt about it, one-way, unfocused, and negative-based conversations with the elderly are difficult to digest, and it's no secret that people on the receiving end simply nod their head and pretend to be taking it all in. Worse yet, because such "conversations" can be downright tedious, we may avoid talking with elders altogether. Sad but true, unrewarding relationships typically get left behind.
While there's little we can do to change the way elderly people converse with us, years of experience has taught me that there's much to be gained by hanging in there with them no matter what an elder's talking style may be. One-way conversations serve an important purpose in the aging process, and once I modified my attitude and behavior, and accepted the fact that most exchanges with elderly people will be off balance, my interactions with them became much less frustrating in the long run.
It's worth taking a look at what's going on behind the scenes. There are plenty of reasons why elderly people bulldoze their way through conversations. Hearing loss is one. In many cases speaking, rather than listening, is easier when one's hearing is impaired. The struggle for autonomy is another. Loss of independence is a frightening thought for anyone at any age; but is especially evident for elderly people. In both case, the process of talking offers elders the experience of exercising personal control over their immediate surroundings.
A focus on end-of-life issues may also come into play when an elderly person encounters a willing audience. Talking out loud to anyone who will listen is the perfect outlet for elders to freely express themselves and get things off their chest. This may explain why older communicators often have little interest in acquiring new information and even less of a need to know "why." Giving voice to innermost thoughts and releasing emotions ultimately helps bring closure to their lives -- and sometimes this process takes years.
On the other hand, if building trust with the elder is of interest to you, listen up. Let's say you're having difficulty getting your point of view across about a sensitive subject (like accepting in-home care). Try spending the next few talking sessions simply listening to what the elder has to say - no questions, no interruptions - just listen. Feeling connected is a fundamental need, and listening is a powerful force in human relationships; it sends a message to the talker - you are important. Like most people, elders respond more favorably to good listeners and are more likely to be open and cooperative.
Sometimes, the act of listening may be the only action needed on your part, and may even alleviate a problem when the elder uses talking as a form of catharsis. An elder's desire to be heard is not always a request for us to come up with any answers or to solve their problems. Sometimes it's their way of saying, "I'm here."
Our elderly loved ones hold the key to our past and insights into our future, and listening to them enriches our lives for the better. I'd love to hear about your experiences. Please leave a comment below.