Conversation Topics

How to Get Your Loved One Talking
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Ever feel like you don't know what else to say to a loved one? Longtime companions often feel "talked out." For others, making conversation with a frail older adult can be hard if you're unsure what's safe or comfortable to bring up. Many people balk, for example, at broad questions like, "What's your favorite memory from childhood?" because they feel put on the spot. And people with dementia may resist direct questioning because they feel like they're being quizzed and get nervous about being unable to supply a "right" answer.

Despite obstacles like these, talk is worthwhile because it passes the time, illuminates things you might not have known about your loved one, and builds new and cherished memories.

In a pinch, try this conversation-starter alternative: "Tell me about . . . "

These three little words are nonthreatening and inviting. Casually curious, they work for any topic, from the weather to politics. They allow for open-ended responses. The conversation may go nowhere (try again another time) or take off.

Some examples:

  • "Tell me about what winters were like in North Dakota when you were a boy."
  • "Tell me about your wedding day."
  • "Tell me about this blanket -- you knitted it, didn't you?"
  • "Tell me about that pet cow you had."
  • "Tell me about the garden you always had."
  • "Tell me about why you joined the military."
  • "Tell me about how you stay so calm all the time."
  • "Tell me about your mother."

They're almost as good as those other three little words ("I love you")!

almost 2 years ago, said...

One very helpful 'trick' from the psychoanalysts: sometimes it works to repeat the last few words of exactly what the older person has just said. For example, when I do my phone check in with Mom, she may tell me, "I feel a little worried." Then I'll respond, "A little worried? How come?" And usually that is sufficient to nudge her to talk. Helpful for me as well, as my sister and I continue to adjust to Mom's cognitive decline and memory loss, and manage the anxiety that accompanies those... Show more One very helpful 'trick' from the psychoanalysts: sometimes it works to repeat the last few words of exactly what the older person has just said. For example, when I do my phone check in with Mom, she may tell me, "I feel a little worried." Then I'll respond, "A little worried? How come?" And usually that is sufficient to nudge her to talk. Helpful for me as well, as my sister and I continue to adjust to Mom's cognitive decline and memory loss, and manage the anxiety that accompanies those challenges. That type of information is really vital. Secondly, I keep a list of the foods and snacks I bring her when I visit. We have a regular menu . But, I make it a point to introduce new items along with the old, to liven up her nutritional routine. When I first arrive at her apartment, I always unpack the groceries and set them in front of her on the kitchen table. This serves a dual purpose: it helps her to feel in control and, also see what I actually bought for her. Then together we will casually 'inventory' everything (often this sparks conversation and comment) while we put the food away. I will always tell mom if I've brought something new, making sure to interestingly package and introduce it to her, in a 'gourmet sample' size. (Luckily, I am a former caterer) Making note of that special item, on my list. The next day when I call her, I can ask, "So, mom, have you had a chance to sample that little chicken and bean salad?" And whether she does or not like the dish provides more opportunity for conversation. Also, it allows her to feel that she's actively involved in the decision process. It is easier to create effortless, positive exchanges like this if I include in "Mom's Hit Parade"..snack items I already know she enjoys. She genuinely looks forward to my weekly visits, sometimes calling me before I leave my house, with her reminder: "honey, be sure and bring that yummy cheese and fruit I liked." All this helps Mom stay active, well nourished, and, oh yes.... chatty! Hide

about 3 years ago, said...

I find that I love you ...breaks the silence, and then I can refraze what I said...usually making it shorter But I like this.... Tell me about...I am for sure going to try it out...thanks Show more I find that I love you ...breaks the silence, and then I can refraze what I said...usually making it shorter But I like this.... Tell me about...I am for sure going to try it out...thanks Hide

about 3 years ago, said...

I'm so glad I found this website, it has helped me learn to deal with my aging Father that I love dearly. To know what he must be going through gives me the strength to take charge and make his live as comfortable as I possibly can, to give him support when things get tough with medical and financial issues. Thank you so much, Tom I'm so glad I found this website, it has helped me learn to deal with my aging Father that I love dearly. To know what he must be going through gives me the strength to take charge and make his live as comfortable as I possibly can, to give him support when things get tough with medical and financial issues. Thank you so much, Tom Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

Not only is good advice for caregivers, but it is also good for younger individuals who allow TV to consume their time instead of being productive. Sometimes we are just plain bored and turn to the TV. I liked your suggestions of things to do instead of being a couch potato. Not only is good advice for caregivers, but it is also good for younger individuals who allow TV to consume their time instead of being productive. Sometimes we are just plain bored and turn to the TV. I liked your suggestions of things to do instead of being a couch potato. Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

I will forward this to my kids for when they visit grandma. I will forward this to my kids for when they visit grandma. Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

I am pleased that you are suggesting that loved ones use such questions as those. I believe most older folks are honored that "youngsters" would be interested in such things - and the questions are among the like of those that the failure of our asking these "mundane" questions can increase our sense of irretrievable loss when a loved one passes. I am pleased that you are suggesting that loved ones use such questions as those. I believe most older folks are honored that "youngsters" would be interested in such things - and the questions are among the like of those that the failure of our asking these "mundane" questions can increase our sense of irretrievable loss when a loved one passes. Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

Now I know what to ask and what not to ask. It seems long term memories work out better for a conversation. Tina Now I know what to ask and what not to ask. It seems long term memories work out better for a conversation. Tina Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

Great idea... and having asked, please do LISTEN when they answer. Engage in conversation and laughter. Show more Great idea... and having asked, please do LISTEN when they answer. Engage in conversation and laughter. Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

Thanks for saving the day with this simple opener ! Thanks for saving the day with this simple opener ! Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

Thanks for the advice. My wife will then feel she is participating in conversations. Now she is often quiet, especially in social situations. I too have the problem of my wife always asking for more kakeup and tell her daily she has what she needs but she is convinced I am being antaganistic and she knows what she needs. The visiting caregiver can show her and that day she is satisfied. Thanks for the advice. My wife will then feel she is participating in conversations. Now she is often quiet, especially in social situations. I too have the problem of my wife always asking for more kakeup and tell her daily she has what she needs but she is convinced I am being antaganistic and she knows what she needs. The visiting caregiver can show her and that day she is satisfied. Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

This is a great tip! Thank you Paula! Like Perky2, I am also interested in other conversational "assists." For instance, my Mom continues to purchase many items at the grocery store and pharmacy even when we tell her "you already have plenty of that and we don't need to purcahse it" (for instance, she had 12 cans of pumpkin at home and felt she needed more even though she used to need only one can each Thanksgiving). She also keeps saying she needs more Advil, fudge sause, etc, but there... Show more This is a great tip! Thank you Paula! Like Perky2, I am also interested in other conversational "assists." For instance, my Mom continues to purchase many items at the grocery store and pharmacy even when we tell her "you already have plenty of that and we don't need to purcahse it" (for instance, she had 12 cans of pumpkin at home and felt she needed more even though she used to need only one can each Thanksgiving). She also keeps saying she needs more Advil, fudge sause, etc, but there are many "current" bottles at home. Is there a recommendation on how to address this so that we and her caregivers are not continually reminding her that we have plenty, to no avail? Thank you for any advice. Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

The 3 little words that I tend to forget..esp. Tell me about yr mother,, The 3 little words that I tend to forget..esp. Tell me about yr mother,, Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

Yes, I agree as I need tips like these when I talk with my 90 year old mother. I sometimes don't know how to keep the conversation going after talking about things in general. So this was very helpful. Yes, I agree as I need tips like these when I talk with my 90 year old mother. I sometimes don't know how to keep the conversation going after talking about things in general. So this was very helpful. Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

Wow!!! this is really good. I'm making a copy to put in my folder should I forgetwhat to talk about. Sometimes some people are just so quie this will definately be helpful. Have a blessed ay, shan Wow!!! this is really good. I'm making a copy to put in my folder should I forgetwhat to talk about. Sometimes some people are just so quie this will definately be helpful. Have a blessed ay, shan Hide

almost 4 years ago, said...

Your articles are so helpful. Thank you!!!! The conversation "help" was a topic I just mentioned to someone, two days ago, about having issues with lately. Please list more conversation aids, for us, if you would? :-) Your articles are so helpful. Thank you!!!! The conversation "help" was a topic I just mentioned to someone, two days ago, about having issues with lately. Please list more conversation aids, for us, if you would? :-) Hide