The Skills of Listening Across Generations


Through the simple act of listening, you can help the seniors in your life to keep the sense of control and confidence that will allow them to feel more comfortable in social situations and more connected to other family members.  Your conversations can also provide mental stimulation and foster continuing interest in the world.  You can help the older adult to reduce the anxiety that comes with uncertainty and change. Recently, researchers have discovered that storytelling enables seniors to feel cared for and connected. One author suggests an activity called Listen to a Life, where intergenerational listening takes place in the context of sharing stories and finding connections among experiences in the past and present.  When you listen to an older adult’s stories, it increases their sense of identity and decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation. These narratives also build mutual trust and genuine emotional connections.

Regardless of the specific circumstances or the strategies you currently apply, the listening needs of seniors make communicating with them a special challenge.  Listening to older adults, however, is a win-win situation.  Your attention enriches their lives while, at the same time, learning about their life experiences provides you with new insights and appreciation.  If you interact regularly with an older person, the following skills may help to improve your relationship.

The Skills of Listening Across Generations

  1. Recognize that talking to an elderly person may take more time. If you need an answer in a hurry, try asking “closed” rather than “open” questions, or design your queries in an either-or format. You cannot expect a quick response to a question such as “What would you like to do tonight?” Asking a more direct question such as “Would you like to take a ride after lunch?” or “Would you like to take a ride after lunch, or would you prefer to look for that book you were talking about?” is less stressful for them and provides you with more concrete information.
  2. As an older person begins to participate less in the mainstream of family life it is often necessary for you to focus her attention before speaking to her. Using her name, for example, or standing in front of her when you speak will let her know that she will be involved in the next encounter.
  3. Let the older person know that she is important. Rather than shouting a question from across the room, stand next to the person whenever you can. Folks who have trouble hearing will appreciate the ability to see you as you speak with them.
  4. Don’t be reluctant to verbalize your feelings. Let an elderly person know that you love them, but also speak up calmly if you feel he or she is violating your rights or deliberately taking advantage of you.
  5. Ask questions. Take the time to be interested in what an older person is doing and thinking. Put yourself in the role of the listener as much of the time as possible. Share when it seems appropriate, but otherwise develop the attitude that you will gain more by listening than by speaking.
  6. Provide support. Recognize the older person’s accomplishments and reinforce the little things that she does. Help her to feel loved and a valued member of the family by allowing her to share in family chores and pleasures.
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