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Auntie SparkNotes: How Can I Talk to Old People?

Auntie SparkNotes: How Can I Talk to Old People?

Dear Auntie,

I've recently started volunteering at a retirement home, and have met some really lovely old folks there. However, I'm finding it quite difficult to converse with them (lots of awwkwaard silences) because I can't think of what topics would be appropriate.

I'm usually completely fine with talking to my peers or teachers because there are many things we have in common to talk about. So I'm wondering if you could advise me on how to converse with elderly people about things that they could go off on (that wouldn't upset them either, like politics, etc.). I'm not sure if this is in your area of expertise, but any help would be greatly appreciated.

Well, okay, confession time: I don't have any special expertise in talking to the elderly. I've never worked at a senior center; I didn't major in Old People. (I do have grandparents, if that counts? One of them is 97!)

But despite not being an Old People Expert, I still think I can help you. Because—and hang onto something, because I'm about to blow your mind—old people are actually just... y'know, people.

Which is to say, you probably don't need to be quite so tentative about upsetting them, or assume off the bat that you have nothing in common with whichever gray-haired old coot you're hanging with. The elderly aren't an unknowable monolith; each person you talk to is a unique individual with his or her own tastes, passions, and experiences—some of which they might even share with you.

BUT. If you want a good topic opener, there is one other thing that all old folks have in common: they're old.

Which means that, to put it elegantly, they have seen some s**t.

Those iconic mid-century moments you've studied in history books? They experienced that. Those amazing clothes on Mad Men? They wore that. Old people are like actual time machines; they're living, breathing windows into the past. And no matter who they are or where they're from, they have amazing stories.

And if you want to hear them, then all you have to do is ask.

So, ask—with open-ended questions that encourage long, meandering responses. Questions like: Where did you grow up? What was your house like? What was your first job? How did you meet your husband/wife? Where were you during the moon landing? The assassination of President Kennedy? The 1972 Olympics? What's your favorite movie? Favorite book? Favorite memory?

...Or, feel free to come up with your own variations. You'll be amazed at what people remember; even elderly folks who don't have the greatest grasp on modern-day reality can have incredible, intricate, vivid recollections of moments from their early years. (Check this out: I once got my grandmother to talk non-stop for an hour by asking her if she ever had any really great hats. Which she did! And now I know all about them!) And of course, you can always ask about their kids. It doesn't matter how old they are; almost every parent loves the chance to brag about their progeny.

And if I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: make it your job to listen. It's the best and most valuable thing you can do, particularly for a generation of people who might be starting to feel like their perspectives, and their experiences, no longer matter to anyone. And when it's your turn to talk, don't be afraid to share your own stories. Talk about your first kiss, or your favorite class, or what you're wearing for prom. Talk to them like they're just as awesome, and understanding, and interesting as any of your friends. Because they are! They just happen to be wrinkly, too.

Got any tips on talking to Old People? Share 'em in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at

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Topics: Advice
Tags: auntie sparknotes, awkward situations, advice, volunteering, grandparents, conversations, elderly people, retirement homes

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About the Author

Kat Rosenfield is a writer, illustrator, advice columnist, YA author, and enthusiastic licker of that plastic liner that comes inside a box of Cheez-Its. She loves zombies and cats. She hates zombie cats. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr @katrosenfield.

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