Faith Works: When prodding memories from relatives, remember to listen

·4 min read

Last week I talked about a wonderful community, a welcoming fellowship, of adult children who are working through the challenges of caring for aging, medically frail but insistently independent parents.

When I say independent, I’m tempted to put quotes around the word, and not doing so is part of the dance around dignity that is what so many of us working to support elderly parents know so well about each other. It’s a dance around confrontation and pivots around the truth, including the most difficult maneuver of all: how to answer the direct question, “I’m doing pretty well on my own, don’t you agree?”

A few folks have counseled candor, a direct “no, you are not.” Column lengths don’t allow me to outline why that’s not an effective strategy, at least in our case (other than to note that someone who’s never been wrong in nine decades previously isn’t likely to respond warmly to contradiction at 92).

Indirection and misdirection and redirection, though: these are strategies which almost anyone can use. Confrontation with someone whose short term memory is mostly gone is frankly a useless strategy, and I’ve surprised myself at some of the remarkable statements it turns out I can agree with, facts to the contrary. If a confused and anxious elder wants to insist Daniel D. Tompkins was the Vice President under John Quincy Adams, sometimes you just smile and agree (to you, dear reader, I am forced to note he served under James Monroe; that’s right, Kris Kringle was incorrect, make of it what you will).

A much more rewarding approach is to find solid ground and go for a walk there. By which I mean the more distant past. There is an interval, for those who are slowly losing their ability to navigate the recent past, where their memories of the 1930s or 40s or 50s is sharp, detailed, and vivid. Ask whether they took their morning medications (okay, ask ME) and you might get a blank look, but ask what color the old farmhouse on 30th Street was, and you might just get the trim, shutters, stoop, and shed thrown in for good measure.

But I have to tell you, whether you’ve done this sort of supportive caregiving or not, there’s a trick or two to this process of entering the past. And for we who are at least a bit younger, it might be where there’s more than a bit of spiritual discipline for us to learn and grow from, not just in the historical and genealogical tidbits you’ll gain.

For many elderly persons, when an adult child or inquisitive grandchild or interested third party asks about events, say, in 1943, the first response is very likely to be “Oh, that’s a long time ago.” Or “my, I don’t remember much about back then.”

This is where you have to trust me. If there’s a rationale to why you’re asking, if you’re a relative or someone with a personal connection to the person you’re asking, here’s the key. If a question gets you an initial “can’t imagine I’d remember something from those days,” you need to wait. In silence. Patiently. If you poke and prod and push, you’ll likely get the mental heels digging in. But again and again over the years, I’ve learned that “son, that was a long time ago, can’t recall very well” isn’t an ending, but a prelude.

You sit with them, calmly, and let the silence sit. And more often then not, you’ll start to hear a story. Be patient. Oh, and don’t be picky. I’ve started out trying to learn more about his older brothers, and ended up hearing riveting details about a Navy blimp landing across the street from his house when he was six. You eat what is set before you on the memory buffet. Maybe you get to go back for seconds, or possibly you’ll ultimately get back around to the brothers, but you learn to delight in and even be thankful for what you get.

Ask questions, accept the initial hesitation, and just listen. Listen, listen, listen. I’ve done this with people who can’t quite recall the year, their location, even their own name, but a few gentle cues and a starting “that was long ago indeed” and suddenly you’re hearing a rich and detailed tale. It may not be the one you thought you were looking for, but it’s almost always one worth hearing.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he isn’t always sure about his memory, either. Tell him how you’ve learned to listen at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Newark Advocate: Faith Works: When prodding memories from relatives, remember to listen

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