How to Engage Your Senior Parent in Conversation

Neither you nor your senior parent is known for being “the silent type.” Yet as the years have passed, it seems you have run out of things to say to each other. It’s a problem you never thought you’d have, especially since your ties run long and deep.

Familiarity doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always share common ground. Individual paths diverge over a lifetime, and so can beliefs, interests, and other typically unifying factors – even among family members. But don’t worry: You can still initiate and sustain meaningful conversations with your senior parent. Here are a few tactics to consider using.

Ask open-ended questions

Have you ever felt someone who initiated a conversation with a direct question was interrogating you? Such an approach could put anyone on the defensive. Keep in mind that a senior parent – who perhaps is dealing with memory loss or declining cognitive ability – could need more time to respond. He may struggle to answer an abrupt, direct question, which could trigger anger or frustration.

So, what’s the solution? Instead of: “Was the Vietnam War wrong?” Ask: “Did you know anyone who fought in the Vietnam War?” If your parent served in the war, you might ask: “Have you kept in touch with any of your fellow service members?” The point is to connect with your parent on a personal, not global, level.

Help boost memory

It’s possible that your senior parent has forgotten far more things than you’ll ever encounter or learn. If you want to have a conversation about a specific time in the past (shared or individual), arm yourself with prompts. They can be visual (greeting cards, home movies and slides, musical instruments, newspaper clippings, photos) or auditory (recordings of songs, speeches, etc.). Such memory aids are likely to fuel an engaging, extended, and informative conversation.

Be patient and creative

Your senior parent may discuss the same topic every time the two of you talk by phone, online, or in person. You may fear that she is experiencing memory loss or even dementia. Perhaps there’s another reason for the repetition: She’s just focused on what’s paramount in her life at that moment. Do your best to remain attentive as she talks.

However, there’s nothing wrong with trying to alter a repetitive narrative. For example, if Mom starts to complain – again – about a neighbor she’s never been fond of, gently steer the conversation toward something much more pleasant, such as an upcoming trip or a visit with a favorite grandchild or friend.

Cultivate common ground

You may be surprised to learn what hobbies or interests your senior parent wants to pursue. Competing in a 5K or hang gliding for the first time could be among Dad’s goals. Mom may reveal her longing to hike the Grand Canyon or train for a triathlon. Think of the talks you can have about how to put such thoughts into actions.

With a little effort and ingenuity, your next conversation with Mom or Dad can be enlightening and enjoyable.

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