Often times, people are resistant to conversing with elderly adults out of fear of being tongue tied. Most dread the thought of sitting there and having nothing to say. Seniors are vibrant and dynamic individuals. And, if anything they have even more to talk about! Decades of experience bestow so many older adults with a wisdom many younger people could benefit to learn from. Whether you are visiting with an older relative or working with the elderly, here are some strategies to help start the conversation, and to keep it going.

  1. First, use open ended questioning – It’s actually true that our brains change with age. A decrease in cells that regulate ‘get-up-a-go’ means the older brain shows a slight decrease in taking in and using new information, making hard facts and minute details difficult to retrieve. Try avoiding direct questions to kick off a conversation. Start with open-ended questions that can merge into other topics as you go. Keep in mind; the older brain is better at grasping the big picture and seeing life from a broader perspective.’Practice using the 4 W’s (Who, What, Where, When, and How) to re-frame direct statements as questions: ‘What was the best vacation you ever took?’; ‘Who did you most admire as a child?’.
  2. Accentuate the Positive – Start with a positive observation about the person. Avoid vague inquiries like ‘How are you today’, which could invite a litany of ailments or complaints. Replace with an exclamation of or some positive (and authentic!) observation.
  3. Use prompts – Once I worked with a client struggling through the early stages of dementia. He was a reserved man, who spent most of his traveling regions throughout the tropics for his military service. To stimulate our conversations, I brought photo books about the Caribbean ‘to our meetings. This simple object was enough to generate hours of conversation. The visuals helped my older friend tap into memories and experiences that were delightful to share.
  4. Be patient – Some older adults tend to consistently talk about the same one or two topics. While it sometimes signals memory loss or dementia, most is a natural expression of what’s important to that elder in their life right now. Validate his or her concerns by listening authentically. If you find yourself annoyed by the repetition, find ways to cope such as deep breathing or flexing your fingers or toes. However, if the person is ruminating, be willing to change topics.
  5. Read aloud – Reading to an older person can be a powerful way to connect. Reading to the older person provides companionship without putting undue pressure on both parties to consistently generate new conversation.
  6. Find out what makes them smile – We all love to talk others’ ears off about our hobbies, families, things we love. When starting a conversation with an older person, ask what they enjoy. Take a look around their room to guess what the person might like. Do they have awards for a special achievement hanging up? Are the walls covered in pictures of their grandchildren? Is their bed decked out in hand knitted blankets? Focus and build upon what brings this person joy.
  7. Talk about the past – Reminiscence is a very important therapeutic mechanism for older adults. Many older people find joy in talking about events in their past. You can ask about their childhood, first love, jobs.

Still need help? Here’s a few questions you can use to the break the ice when talking to a senior:

  • Do you have a favorite animal [food, color, song]?
  • Where did you go to school?
  • What was the first job you ever had?
  • When you were little, what was your neighborhood like?
  • What is your favorite type of music?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • How did your military experience shape your life?
  • How many grandchildren/children do you have?
  • When you were a kid, what did you do for fun?
  • What makes you happy?
  • Growing up, what were some fads you remember [hairstyles, clothing, dances]?