What older loved ones can teach us about tough times — and how to have a meaningful conversation

Dec. 30, 2020

As a child, I loved sitting at my grandparent’s feet and listening to what it was like for them to live through moments I could only read about in textbooks. I’d regularly ask my grandmother to retell stories of how being a fair-skinned, redheaded Black woman in 1930s and ‘40s rural Louisiana influenced how she was treated and make connections to my grandfather’s matter-of-fact recollections of sharecropping. Their stories weren’t always as exciting as what we learned in class. But to my young mind, they were heroes for having lived through such tough times. I understood early on that seniors are uniquely prepared to navigate a world in holistic racial, social and economic trauma because they’ve been there before

Donna Benton, who holds her doctorate in geropsychology and is a research associate professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, suggests that conversations like the ones I had with my grandparents offer an opportunity to pass strength and coping skills between generations. In fact, she says that reminiscing with an older adult about the challenges they faced over the course of their lives and how they persevered can actually serve to manage a caregiver or loved one’s anxiety and fear.

Below are a few suggestions for how we can make the most of conversations with seniors during tough times in hopes of learning from — and possibly even adopting — their winning coping strategies.

See seniors as valuable

Society is plagued with ageism and false beliefs that seniors are bothersome, which can prevent people from seeing the lifelong importance of our relationships with them. In fact, we often frame seniors as vulnerable. We tend to focus on their disproportionate risks for loneliness, limited opportunities for communication and, in the midst of a pandemic, health complications should they fall ill

While these have become familiar and necessary areas of discussion, the wisdom and resilience that our elders display are rarely acknowledged. In order to learn from them, we must establish the same trust and respect for older adults that serves as the foundation of healthy communication in any other relationship. 

Christiana Awosan, who holds her doctorate in couples and family therapy, is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as founder of Ibisanmi Relational Health in New York City, believes that for adult children, in particular, this requires realizing that the parent-child relationship is important — and can be reciprocal — in all of its stages. She says that older and younger adults can teach one another about the world. For instance, I would often offer my grandparents suggestions on how to use the phone or TV, either of which might be helpful for communicating and curbing loneliness.  It felt good knowing I had helped them learn a new skill while gaining knowledge that could help me navigate the world. 

But for me, the best part was knowing that I was demonstrating the love and patience that elders seldomly received, especially when there were so few places they felt comfortable asking for help. 

Educate yourself on major historical events

It’s painful to relive some of the most uncomfortable moments of U.S. history. If you’re hoping to learn from an older adult’s stories, you might want to preemptively educate yourself on what the world was like at different points in seniors' lives.

For instance, consider brushing up on significant historical events like World War II and the Great Depression to understand more about the experience of adults who lived through the first half of the 20th century. Still, it’s worth noting that while events like the Holocaust, civil rights movement and the AIDS crisis are well-known historical moments, they did not necessarily mark an end to discrimination.

Being aware of the context — and how a particular crisis or turning point in history ended — makes it helpful to ask thoughtfully tailored questions on how major events impacted your loved one’s life. Listening to some of these historical accounts together can offer an additional layer of bonding.

Engage with compassion

Sometimes older adults’ stories will share exciting accounts on how to be the hero. Perhaps your loved one was front and center during the Stonewall uprising or provided refuge and resources to families during the Holocaust. But most times, like with my grandparents, they’ll recount everyday examples of people who did what they could to survive hard times.  

Either way, conversations might be difficult and feel triggering. And when that is the case, compassion is crucial — whether the older adult you’re speaking to was the victim or the actor. It’s normal for older adults to wish that they’d done certain things differently.

Awosan says these feelings should be seen as an opportunity. If they’re able to stay with that tension and anxiety and remember that they are strong enough to handle any difficult conversation, she says, they can find new ways to cope with old challenges.

Worried about how to phrase questions about painful moments? Benton suggests phrasing questions like, “I was just thinking about ‘x’ period, and I remember hearing you talk about ‘x’-related memory. Can you tell me about that experience?” Or you can look at memorabilia and say something like, “Wow, this must be from the time you were in the military. That couldn’t have been easy, but look at you now. I bet there’s a lot I could learn from you. How did you get through that time in your life?”

Both experts say we should emphasize resilience and strength instead of victimhood. Doing so requires that we center the conversation on the older adult’s coping mechanisms — especially when asking people of color and other marginalized seniors about their experiences. They note this can also be done by asking seniors to reflect on activities and faith-based practices that give them hope.   

Understand that there’s still room to grow

It’s no secret that many of our loved ones grew up in a time that it was socially acceptable to publicly express prejudice and bias. Seeing news on the ongoing fight for civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities or the LGBTQ community might resurface these problematic opinions. Awosan says that if you find an older loved one’s reflections problematic, speak up. Having continuous communication on these challenging topics might be fuel for new perspectives.

“The younger generation can’t be afraid of challenging the older generation and say, ‘Oh, they’re stuck in their ways and can’t change,’” says Awosan. “What you’re saying is they’re not flexible. But when young people can do that with their parents, it promotes a different type of bonding based on respect.”

She also points out that hearing disappointing perspectives from loved ones won’t always feel good. But we must provide a judgment-free environment. “It doesn’t mean [they’re] a bad person; it just means you’re being asked to look at things from a different perspective,” she explains.

Prepare for lost memories

Just as it’s normal for seniors to feel uncomfortable when reflecting on painful moments, it’s also normal for them to experience memory loss. Memory loss can be triggered by age and more chronic conditions like dementia. Benton also notes that for seniors with dementia and other forms of memory loss, it might be difficult to establish a clear timeframe of events. This might make it more challenging to pick up on helpful takeaways, but there’s also a lesson in the loss.

Both experts suggest that people speaking to older adults about their experiences should make space for two types of grief: the kind triggered by the impact of dementia on their relationship with their loved one and the kind triggered by the senior’s story itself —  both of which might impact the listener and the storyteller.

“It is more important to help the person remember their ability to cope and to help the person remember a time when they had feelings of being strong, competent and in control,” says Benton.  

Awosan suggests taking photos of these moments of togetherness and recording conversations to preserve these memories so they last through age and changes in memory.  

Cherish your time together

Our elders have forged the path forward for us in so many ways. I’d trade anything to sit at my grandmother’s feet and hear one last story. I wish I had more time to give her my attention and love. Given the benefits of intergenerational interaction, it’s more important than ever to cherish the seniors in your life and learn from them while you can. After all, as my grandmother used to say, “If you’re lucky, one day, you’ll be old too.”

Look for stories from a variety of older adults

Don’t have access to elders with first-hand accounts? It’s OK! Awosan says that we can feel connected to the human legacy of strength and perseverance from loved ones as well as community members.

You can also find stories of seniors’ resilience online. Consider Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer’s interviews of nearly 60 survivors of the Spanish flu or profiles of individuals with awe-inspiring experiences like Daniel Smith, the living son of a slave.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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