I need to confess that I pushed old people around a whole lot as a teenager. Furthermore, I am rather proud of that fact.
I volunteered at my local zoo for two summers, navigating wheelchair-bound seniors around the park. I loved my job as we were given access to much of the zoo before the doors opened to the public. With every new passenger, I saw the zoo through fresh eyes. As it was difficult to carry on much of a conversation as we made our way through the zoo, our tour included a refreshment stop at the end of our tour. In the beautiful surroundings of the zoo’s conservatory, we would sit under tropical trees and chat over a cold drink.
Most of my passengers were eager to talk once they realized that I was interested in what they had to say. I would prime the pump by asking a few leading questions. “Did you grow up in Calgary? What made you settle in this city? What was Calgary like when you were my age?” As they shared story after story, the writer in me wished for a pen and paper so I could make notes. When their transportation home arrived, I was sad to see them go. I couldn’t understand why many of these charming seniors rarely had visitors. People just didn’t know what they were missing!
Forty years later, my mother is ninety-one years old and wheelchair bound. Her mental health has begun to slip as she is in the beginning stages of dementia. I cherish every moment I spend with her but as she lives 3 1/2 hours away, those moments are far too few. I am grateful for the lessons I learned as a teen and there are new lessons I am learning as I determine to make each visit with my mom count.
Here are a few tips I thought I’d pass along.
1. Spend more time asking your loved ones leading questions than you do talking about yourself. Prime the pump with questions that invite more than a ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘I can’t remember that long ago’ response. Depending on the mental state of your loved one, skip world news and focus on the family and people they know.
- ‘Who was your favourite singer or band when you were a teenager’ is a better question to ask than ‘What was it like when you were a teenager?’ When I asked this question during my last visit with my mother, I discovered that we shared a mutual aversion to Country Music. That led to a lively discussion about the Calgary Stampede and my mother’s well-documented dislike of crowds.
- Think of old neighbours and your loved one’s peers. They could be neighbourhood moms or they could be friends and co-workers of your loved one who visited your family when you were a child. If you have a treasured memory of that person, bring it up! See if that stirs the water, so to speak.
- You were such an amazing hostess at Christmas, inviting our single friends to join us. Did your parents do the same thing when you were a child? Again, this sort of question gives an opportunity for them to share more stories.
- If they are a sports fan, do a bit of research before your visit. Who was a famous quarterback of their favourite team? Was there a beloved coach that was with that team for years? My mother had a wonderful time at a recent event as sports-savvy friends kept her engaged with sports talk for much of the afternoon.
- Allow seniors the pleasure of dusting off the same old story you’ve heard countless times.
2. Think about the information you want to share and then say it concisely. If you are a verbal processor, resist the temptation to use your elderly loved one as a sounding board. Feel free to verbally process over a cup of coffee with a good friend at a later date.
3. Give up the right to be right. Your loved one’s memory of a situation and your own memory of that situation might differ but now is not the time to display your superior memory skills or prove a point. If they get a story wrong or develop a revised version of a memory, don’t correct them unless it is vital for you to do so.
4. Sit close and always be at a senior’s eye level whenever possible. Look in their direction when you are speaking and speak clearly. If they are a loved one or a beloved friend, hold their hand. Give them a gentle hug and a kiss when you arrive and when you leave. Even if they nod off, they still sense you are near.
People have tales to tell; some of those tales are amusing, some are full of pathos, some are disturbing and some are yet unfinished. Many voices are silenced by the insensitivity of others. In our increasingly impatient world, God invites us to stop and listen attentively. By doing so, not only are we enlightened; we also send a message to the storyteller’s heart. No one is insignificance in God’s eyes. He delights in our stories.
God instructed the Israelites to build stones of remembrance after they crossed the River Jordan. These stones were to serve as memory cues, allowing each generation to pass along their oral history to the next. (Joshua 4:1-24)
The next time you are out for lunch with friends after church and a spontaneous testimony time breaks out where each person tries to outdo the other with proclaiming God’s goodness in their lives, don’t be afraid to ask those present for permission to record their stories.
Don’t allow the wisdom and history of those who have gone before you to be buried under a sea of trivial information and everyday life. Don’t allow the wisdom you have gained or the testimonies of God’s faithfulness in your own life go to waste. Put them down on paper or record them! Many ‘Apples of Gold’ (Proverbs 25:11) are lost forever because of a lack of intentionality to gather those apples!
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All Bible verses attributed to the ESV version unless otherwise indicated.
Until Next Week
©2018 Katherine Walden
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