“You’ve had experience with this”, the host implied admiringly when I engaged his elder mother in conversation at his party. I’m often noted for my interaction with elders, indicating it might be uncommon and perhaps acquired.
When I began my teaching career in the late 80’s, there was often a similar intonation regarding the way I interacted with children. It inspired me to be a leader for parents who had difficultly communicating with their offspring, not unlike the inspiration I feel to model behavior for people with parents who have moved into a developmental stage of greater dependence. Dependence, basically, on people to treat them with the same understanding it takes with anything worth pursuing.
What exactly was it that I did that prompted this praise? I want to see what he saw, so that I can break it down in a way that is useful for others, as I did for parents many years ago. And although there is nothing formulaic about how any one person is in a relationship, there are some guiding principles that might apply.
So here goes. How I Swept Ingrid Off Her Feet
- I noticed her and greeted her. (You’d be surprised how often elders are disregarded on this very basic level, although this was not the case last night).
- When she repeated a fact about her life, I responded each time as if it were the first time I’d heard it. (It was evident that she did not recall telling me and I’ve observed that pointing this out to someone whose memory does not categorize like it used to usually frustrates or diminishes, neither of which I set out to do). I’m even able to now recognize that it is the first time I’m hearing it. (Think about it! Each time I hear someone say something, anything, it’s the first time!)
- “Would you mind helping me?” is a question that I asked that she did not seem accustomed to hearing. Imagine how this one little re-frame created a feeling of empowerment for someone who might be feeling like more of a burden than a contribution.
- I make sure not to overwhelm with other questions. Now that she was intrigued with me, I followed her lead. I let her guide the conversation and it became obvious what she was interested in and capable of talking about. Children, the spectacular view of Lake Champlain before us, the color of each other’s eyes.
- I kept my mind open to insight. As a result, I allowed the wisdom and beauty that she offered to enlighten and contribute to my personal growth.
Pretty simple, but as the saying goes, not always easy.
If you find you are less than excited to interact with elders, ask yourself some questions.
- Does something prevent you from allowing the process of conversation to unfold in this manner?
- Is accepting a change in memory difficult for you?
- What scares you about the elder developmental stage?
- Are you willing to re-frame the relationship in a way that can ultimately be an enhancement for both of you?
As I rediscovered last night, any initial effort invested dwarfs the outcome by a mile.