Today’s blog post comes to us from Paula Spencer Scott, senior editor at Caring.com with 4 conversation-starting tips for how to avoid awkward silence.
Talking to others is one of the simplest health-boosters for frail older adults. But many caregivers know the awkward feeling of being unsure what to talk about, or of running out of things to say. Once you’ve discussed health issues and the weather, and all the other old conversations you feel like you’ve had a million times before, then what?
Here are some conversation starters that can pass the time and provide important social stimulation in ways you both enjoy:
- Plan ahead together. Forward-looking conversations can be mood boosters. The future event can be as grand as an upcoming party or as basic as the next haircut appointment. It can be far in the future (“when your son visits”) or as soon as dinner. Ask for input: What do you think we should eat? Will you wear your new sweater? It can even be imaginary planning: “What side dishes would you serve at Thanksgiving if you were the cook?” “Where do you think my cousin should go on her honeymoon this fall?” Bonus: Looking forward is often less taxing than remembering recent past events for someone with dementia.
- Try a different phrasing. Instead of asking questions, make a more open-ended invitation to talk. Try saying, “Tell me about . . . ” For example, “Tell me about what it was like to grow up in Minnesota before you had fleece and waterproof boots!” “Tell me about your favorite pet.” “Tell me about the time you went to Japan.” This phrasing avoids yes-no answers and often leads to interesting stories.
- Prompt about classic, age-old interests. It sounds a little sexist, but many older men often enjoy talking about sports and cars, and many older women like to talk about children and weddings. Bring a magazine to spark a conversation about current headlines or bring a photo album with snapshots from recent family events as a starting point. Ask: “How do you think the Tigers will do this year?” or “Did you ever see a no-hitter?” Or, “Look at that movie star’s wedding gown; how do you like it? What was yours like?” “What kind of reception do you think Bob and Julie should have?”
- Instead of ignoring the negative, zero in on it. Whether it’s just the two of you or a group, try asking, “What’s the worst thing that happened today?” Let a complainer run with it. Share something yourself. It’s actually a great way to vent — and you might learn something new or surprising about the person’s care situation or perceptions. It can also turn a bad event into a funny one.
When it comes to sparking conversation with your loved one, what’s worked for you?
Paula Spencer Scott is a senior editor at Caring.com, the leading online destination for caregivers seeking information and support as they care for aging parents, spouses, and other loved ones. Paula is a 2011 MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging fellow and writes extensively about health and caregiving. For more ideas about communication with older adults, see How to Talk to the Elderly About Tough Family Issues.