Conversation Starters With Elders Which Encourage Connection

The elder stage of life has as many specificities as any other stage, however if you’re not toookiepast the 80, it can be difficult to understand.

Just as my 20something daughters can’t fully understand the decisions their 50something parents make, we don’t always see the wisdom in the choices of our older counterparts.

It’s first important to understand that the aging brain processes things differently than it did when it was younger. In fact, there are things the older brain can process that a younger brain simply cannot. Elders have the edge on grasping the big picture and seeing life from a broader perspective. And since I’m not 80, I have no idea what that looks like, however my research has helped me compile these ideas for conversation.

Starting with direct questions can sometimes be inhibiting. Unless you’re sure the topic is something that the person is interested in recalling or exploring, start with statements that can emerge into questions as you go. Indirect questions can also help get a flow of dialogue moving.

The point isn’t to get the “right” answers or have the conversation accomplish something specific, other than allowing two beings to connect in a way that honors the experience and wisdom of the elder. The following suggestions are not meant to be spoken verbatim, although some could! They’re designed to get you thinking past the paradigms that you might be attached to at this stage of your life. This is a chance to develop your sensibilities and spirit.

Some ways to begin a mutual connection:

1.) Avoid “How are you today”, which could end in a litany of ailments or complaints. Replace with an exclamation of “You’re looking especially chipper today!’ or some positive (and authentic!) observation.
2.) “Hello” (pause for a response)
3.) Think of a problem you would like some perspective around in which you know they are knowledgeable. Eg.“I can’t keep the deer out of my lettuce plants. Did you ever deal with that?”
4.) What’s a topic they enjoy? “What did you enjoy about flying a plane in WWII?”
5.) “When you were little, what did your family do together that you enjoyed?”
6.) Weave in an example: “My neighbor told me she remembered when phones had party lines. That sounds so funny to me!”
7.) “Do you have a favorite animal?”
8.) “Would you like me to read to you?” (all kinds of reading material provides room for deeper discussion!)
9.) Allow the same discussion, over and over, if that is the direction your elder chooses. Find ways to not be annoyed by repetition.
10.) “What a great day. I always enjoy a warm, rainy day. It reminds me of splashing in puddles when I was little.”
11.) Tell a joke. Eg. What do you call a 100 year old ant?
An antique.
Conversations with Women:
Children and grandchildren
Their education history
Their employment history
What they wish they’d accomplished
Changes they’ve seen in their lifetime
What is their purpose now?
Their surviving/late husbandsMen:
Past loves
Their careers
Pretty girls and women ;-) (Don’t fret about this being sexist. This is a simple joy for men! Try it with the ladies, too!)
Their surviving/late wives
Hobbies they’ve enjoyedEvents to consider:

Music in all forms, but esp. live
Story telling/reading
Corny joke telling
Sitting outdoors
Aminal visits
Babies/young children visiting
Anyone taking the time to listen and talk


Asking about health/pain, but don’t ignore if it is brought up
Asking too many questions that require recall
Talking about them to others in their presence, regardless of their developmental state
Correcting them if it really doesn’t matter in the big picture. And trust me, it really doesn’t matter. ;-)

©2009-2014 Natalie Tucker Miller, MMC, BCC

Founder, Ageless‐, Picture Books for Elders™


Natalie Tucker Miller, MMC

Founder Publishing (A-S)

Books for Elders
(208) 806-1256


Lead Certifier, International Association of Coaching (IAC)

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Fearing the worst, experiencing magic

It’s a day people who love someone with dementia fear: How will I feel when they don’t know who I am?

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Do Old People Like to Laugh?

I recently read an article called “Why the elderly have a sense of humour failure”.

The researchers said it was likely that age-related decline in short term memory, abstract reasoning and shifting between different trains of thought affects the ability to understand humor.

So although a these factors may effect the way someone responds to a joke, here are some things that I’ve found help elders to laugh:

When my mother was at a point where she could not effectively follow the nuances of a joke, it was clear that if laughter were to be a part of her life, we’d need to put some thought into it. First and foremost I observed the things that delighted her, held her attention and made her smile or laugh.

Visual humor: One day a friend of mine, out of the blue, got my mother’s attention. He poured a little water into his mouth, pulled on his earlobe while spitting  the water  out in a stream. OMG, my mother could not get enough of it!


Funny words: My elder friend who likes to be included in all conversations, will often laugh when she hears word groups that sound funny to her. One day I had said “It sounded like I cracked a tooth!”, and she got such a kick out of the way “cracked a tooth” sounded, She repeated it a few times the way someone would repeat a  funny punchline, so I rolled with it and laughed along with her. It became a contagious back and forth of chortling.

Corny jokes: Even if the elder doesn’t really “get” the joke, the way corny jokes are often delivered is enough of a cue to indicate that humor is involved, which can spur laughter.

Most of all, follow their lead. If something tickles grandma’s funny bone, and you don’t understand why, laugh with her. It’s the laughter that has healing powers, not the actual joke, so take advantage of laughter whenever you can!

A person’s sense of humor does shift as they get age, but that’s no reason to stop laughing!

To read more of the article, click here

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Cool Things About Elders

ten things

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From Child to Caregiver

Much is written about changing beliefs, having a choice in the way you see things, flipping from negative to positive.

I support much that is written! What I hear from people, though, is how do you apply these principles to specific areas of their lives?

Q . When you are with someone who has been there for you as a care giver, a support system, loving guidance, how do you shift into accepting their aging process, their changing brain, the fact that you now provide much of their care, support and loving guidance?

A. The same way you eat an elephant. One bite at a time.

This doesn’t mean it has to take a long time (if you’re really hungry, that elephant will get eaten more quickly!), what it does mean is that first you determine what is the most important part for you to first approach, or which part of the elephant do you want to consume first?

Our culture is moving away from a mainstream, prescriptive way of living a life and into individuation. This is lovely, as many examples of people who follow their passions, travel the path that feels right to them,and/or listen to their own inner guidance over what others advise, living happier, more fulfilled lives.

So shall we apply this to some specifics?

My mother began showing signs of dementia when she and her husband were still living in their house independently. Mainstream wisdom told me to rush in and advocate, get services to help, be sad, wring my hands and know that “the worst is yet to come”. And since I had siblings, it was going to be difficult to agree on things, so look out!

I tried that. I didn’t like it. Advocating was more like taking over. Being sad prevented me from seeing this phase as precious as any other. Assuming it would only get worse kept me in worry and fear unable to honor the process of life. Questioning the decisions of my involved sisters created tension, built walls and generally kept us each in an “I’m right-er than you” frame of mind.

So I talked to my father-in-law, who I knew had experience in this area, and wisdom that I trusted. He counseled me to follow their lead. Only do what is right before you. No more. No less.

I decided to have a conversation with myself and ask some questions.

What is important to you, Natalie?
If you didn’t have outside influences telling you what is or isn’t appropriate, how would see this differently?
Are you honoring your intuition?
What are your beliefs about the cycle of life?

The flipping part became a natural by-product of me getting in touch with and fully trusting my own, unique was of seeing life. When I honored myself it was easy to honor others and their points of view.

It’s hasn’t always been comfortable or convenient to listen to my inner guidance, however once I got in touch with what my inner guidance really felt like and looked like, I can tell you, it has never let me down.

How can I be so sure? I have a memory like an elephant.


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Where are the Spice Girls When You Need Them

For some reason, I can’t help but think of the melodramatic song “Mama” this morning, as images of my mother appear in my mind’s eye. Not one to be too lost on sentimentality, “Mama I love you, Mama I care. Mama I love you, Mama my friend” none-the-less won’t leave my head!

It may be hard for someone who has not experienced dementia as a joyous part of life to understand, but my mother, at 91, with dementia, in a nursing home, sleeping a good portion of her days, cared for me until her last breath (in the physical realm. She’s still caring for my spirit, the little duffer!).

I remember sitting with her, holding her hand, while she held my heart. Always.

As far back as I can remember, all it took from her was a look. Of course, that included “the” look which meant I’d better stop whatever shenanigans were at hand in the moment. But more importantly, it included the look of love.

The glance, the smile, the wink, the smirk, all of those tender facial expressions that let me know she had my heart in her hands.

As I often sat with her in the nursing home, her desire and/or ability (who really knows?) to converse a thing of the past, the looks to convey her inner most feelings never ceased. Always particularly expressive through her deeply beautiful eyes, she could throw a glance that would bring me to my knees. I never felt for a moment that she had stopped caring for, and taking care of, me.

Thanks, Mama.

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All I Want is Loving You and Music, Music, Music

This is worth watching til the end. The gentleman is a treasure!

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Gratitude for Lilah

The highest tribute to the dead is not grief, but gratitude ~ Thornton Wilder

As I sit with my friend Lilah, weeks after her stroke, she indicates that her heart is telling her it’s time to move on. It’s easy to feel gratitude for my beautiful elder friend, yet waves of grief are present as well.

Saying good-bye to friends is just part of the package of befriending elders. The honor of being in the presence of people who have embraced this leg of their journey is a gift I receive over and over and only hope I can adequately pay forward!

In addition to offering tribute to our loved ones when they pass, why not make appreciation a habit now? All too often, our habits have us noticing what needs improvement in our relationships rather than finding the perfection of what is. Looking for what’s right in the relationship is a great starting point, one that benefits giver, receiver and everyone in between. Think of how you feel when you’re in the presence of someone who not just accepts or tolerates “what-is”, but fully enjoys and appreciates it!  Think how you feel when you know you’ve had that effect on others.

One of the ways I’ve learned to appreciate my connection with Lilah and others is through sharing stories. What began as the simple intention of giving back to my mother, has turned into a mission of helping families connect during the changing developmental stages of aging.

A story is more than the sum of words + pictures on a page. It can be a catalyst to deeper connection. Stories and books become a tool for that connection, not the means to an end!

To cultivate that connection through books, here are some things to keep in mind when reading together:


  • Release any expectation. Sometimes you will have a captive audience when reading the story, other times it may spark an alternate conversation and still other times it may appear that nothing is happening.  Let whatever happens be OK.  The point is you are together, present with one another.


  • Allow this be an interactive process. Some ways to do this are:


  1. Expand on the story. If an element of the story reminds you of a personal experience, consider weaving that in with the book.
  2. Ask simple questions.  What does your listener think about a certain sentence or verse of the book? Does it remind them of anything they have ever done before?  How do they feel about a particular aspect of the story?
  3. Create an activity around the story. Drawing, coloring, doodling, writing, rhyming, alliterations, singing, these are all simple activities to incorporate into the story telling.


  • Enjoy yourself.  The best gift you can bestow on someone is the joy you feel because you are with them.  Don’t force this, as it will be frustrating to all involved.  If you’re not “in the mood”, honor that and return to it another time when the conditions are right.  The importance of this cannot be overstated!


Sharing yourself with someone in this way can express profound appreciation that will last long after they have passed on. Like now: The gratitude I have for Lilah is already making its way to you!

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Let’s Have More Fun!


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Early morning musings

A trip to the airport had me up and about earlier than usual this morning. On the ride home, just Gaston and myself in the car, my mind went to, as it often does, the elder stage of development and what it must be like for some.

It occurred to me that, at 54, although I see the world differently than I could have earlier in my life (isn’t that always true!), I still fee quite youthful. The world is an exciting playground with which to explore and express. I easily relate to younger people, as I can remember the various stages I passed through before them. Of course I don’t know what any one person, from any one generation, may or may not be feeling, but that is not the point of relating. For me, relating is remaining curious and open to all perspectives, in a way that honors all humanity.

And truly, I feel as alive and vital as I did when I was younger, maybe more so in some respects.

Which got me thinking about elders. I’ve never been older than I am, at least not in this lifetime, or that I can recall, so I can’t really know what it feels like to be 80 or 90 or 100. (or 60 or 70 for that matter!) Is it as big a surprise at that age to look in the mirror and see the changing body, skin, hair, teeth, all of it, as it is for me to notice a new shock of gray hair, or sagging chin-skin? (My new passport picture was the tip off!)  Is being ignored by the younger generation frustrating or a welcome relief?

Whatever the answers may be for any individual, one thing my curiosity allows me is to benefit from the gifts that every person has to offer. Each time I suspend an assumption and delve more deeply into not knowing, the more I grow and expand and embrace all that life has to offer. What we judge as “good”, or “bad” or anything in between and beyond…..

Thanks, I needed that!

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