How (and why) to communicate with your very elderly

Spending time with my Granny when she was 90-95, eventhough she had already had a cardio-vascular incident 10 years earlier, was so very rewarding that I travelled from Edinburgh to Rio every 4 months for 2 years, 10 days at a time, just to get exposed to some more of that.

Yet, I would witness family and friends not manage to communicate with her effectively anymore. Their “conversations” were more like monologues: “How are you today, Granny? (pause) It’s very hot, isn’t it? (pause)” and soon they’d switch to chatting to my Aunt instead. Such a wasted opportunity!

Granny was very old. Therefore she got more tired when doing the things you and I speed through. It took her longer to gather the strength and the words or even the thread of thought to answer questions. I suspect older people’s concept of time elongates, which may be why they always want to be ready very early :)! But once she started talking, boy… She told me about her first love, “he was so beautiful so beautiful it seemed to confuse our eyes so beautiful he was”, and about the first time she and GranPa made love – “I had not been told about what happens between a man and a woman, so when the he first hugged on our first night, I thought he was being disrespectful and pushed him so hard he fell on the chair that was on the other side of the room”! “Did he understand you GrandMa, was he patient?”, I asked. She nodded and blushed a little. Our conversations were filled with such jewels, my GrandPa’s last words, how she would have wanted to have been a travel journalist if she had been born now, how she raised 3 kids alone after he passed, eventhough she was far from her family and could not read nor write – she told my aunt “let’s get to work” and started sowing, how she felt about GrandPa’s infidelities, which explains how Mum feels about the topic and how I do too. GrandMa’s stories not only shed light on your family history and a time long gone, but also on who you are, as a reflection of the struggles your parents and grandparents went through. It shows the values your family stands for, which will inevitably help guide your future decisions.

Also important, talking to her you harmonise with her rythym, her elongated concept of time becomes your own, your heartbeat goes down and it is like meditation, so very peace-offering!, such an opportunity!

So yes, the trick to good communication with your elder is “give them time, wait for it, and listen”. For your enrichment. And for theirs. I was the only one who managed to converse with Granny like that. Only by waiting a little longer after asking the first question and by bringing my ear a little closer. Without good conversations, she felt so terribly lonely! People leave their elders so terribly lonely! I cannot understand that.

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