5. Look at an older person when they talk to you, and really listen.
When someone has trouble hearing, it helps to look straight at them, so when you speak it’s easier to make out what you’re saying. It also shows interest and respect. Don’t look at your phone, your computer screen, your feet, or the other person in the room.
A note for health care professionals: it is especially important for you to look at your elderly patients or clients. If you take notes on your computer and constantly look away, it will be harder for them to hear and understand what you say, and they’ll feel ignored. Also, try not to talk to a younger companion, just because it’s quicker and easier.
Believe me, I speak from experience. On more than one occasion G.’s doctor and I both got in trouble for speaking to each other about G., instead of to her. The doctor was trying to get the information she needed as expediently as possible, and I was trying to make sure everything I’d observed, and what I felt was important, got communicated. But it was G.’s appointment, not mine, and she let us know it. No competent adult who has taken care of herself for decades wants to be talked over as if she were a child.
Looking at the person, and listening, shows respect. It will help you both communicate more effectively. It also shows that the person still matters, and you care what they have to say. And you will likely learn something worthwhile.
6. Keep your mind and body as active as possible for as long as possible.
G. had been an athlete when she was young, and stayed active all her life. I think she went swimming often in her later years, but by the time I met her, at 91, she had to be happy with more modest pursuits. Still she had her own little exercise routine that she did nearly every day, and we often went for short walks.
Some of the things she could do — like lie down and lift her leg over her head, or bend over while standing and touch her feet – were beyond my reach, literally. I have never had much flexibility, but she maintained hers when she was decades older than me.
She also kept her mind active. She read a daily newspaper, kept up on current events, and read books. She did crossword puzzles from the paper and we played Scrabble or cards. She could carry on an interesting conversation, and as a retired bookkeeper kept her checkbook, her house, and her life in meticulous order.
G. also worked until she was at least 80, and then did volunteer work after that. She maintained an active interest in life, and still lived it – despite the increasing limitations of age — as fully as she could.
I have observed that if you choose not to use your mind or your body, they won’t come through for you when you need them. But if you keep them exercised, they’ll still serve you well, and your life will be more interesting too, because you are really living it, not just watching it go by.
7. Being a little stubborn can help you survive.
G. went through some difficult times in her life – she lost her mother at a young age; she lived through the depression and several wars; she moved from South Dakota to California as a young woman on her own and supported herself and built a new life; she raised a child on her own, starting in her forties. She worked until she was at least 80, and took care of herself all her life.
You don’t survive and thrive through all those challenges without some backbone, and maybe a bit of an “I can do it myself and my way” attitude. This does not always make it easy for family members or caregivers to help, and there were days when I wished there was just a little less “fight” in her, but that strong will helped her accomplish what she needed to.
8. Cherish your time together.
None of us knows how much time we’ll have. But when you have a friend or family member who has already outlived the average life span, that reality becomes more poignant. Enjoy each day, each moment, each story. Treasure them away, so that person will live on in your heart, and you might even be able to share some of their personal history, and some of the lessons you’ve learned, with others.
It’s often the small things you’ll remember later. Taking time to enjoy a cup of tea and a cookie together, or to look at old pictures; really listening to a story of what it was like to live in other times and places; sharing a good laugh over something small but meaningful to both of you.
And giving of yourself to help someone, even when it isn’t always easy, offering the gift of care, of living at home instead of in a ‘home’, of making a day less lonely — these are all things that make a difference, and become gifts to you as well, enriching your life immeasurably.
And remember, if someone is older and lives alone, sharing a meal together with them, whether it’s something you’ve prepared yourself or just a frozen dinner you warmed up, can really mean a lot. They will feel less alone, and they will eat more, so you have helped sustain someone in two ways, and with much more benefit than if you simply dropped off the food and then left. And this will allow you to enjoy their company as well.
So treasure the living historians in your life. Be as patient as you can. Don’t forget to see, and share, the joy and humor in the little things. You can help make the last years of someone’s life more connected and companionable and a little easier, and you will be storing up memories you can take out and savor for years to come.