Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Talking with Older Adults: Serving as a Witness

Photo by ClockworkGrue

As a life-long reader and a decades’ long teacher of English, I love to read. I cherish the information conveyed by the pages of a book. For similar reasons, I enjoy talking with older adults. They are dynamic storehouses of history. I delight in hearing of their experiences from the 1950s, 1940s, 1930, and even the 1920s--decades before my birth.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of talking with Gladys Bever, a woman who will turn 102 this summer.  Talking with her about  her childhood allowed me a glimpse into events from the 1910s. I visit her almost every Monday, and our conversations are often about the events of her week: what she had for lunch, who visited her on the weekend, a new photo added to the collection on her windowsill, the status of her newspaper that often takes an indirect route to her room at the nursing home. In an effort to open a new topic of conversation, I pointed out that we are both from California.

With that prompt, she talked about the presence of horses in her life during her childhood in a town 30 miles north of Sacramento. She and her older brother used to ride in a horse-pulled cart to school. After describing the horse, she then mentioned that she and her family traveled--sometimes by horse, sometimes by train--to the city of San Francisco where her aunt worked as a physician. She enjoyed the sites of that grand city and her time playing in some of the public parks.

Then she casually mentioned that she attended the World’s Fair held there in 1915, the year that she turned five.

Time seemed to stop for me in that moment. I could feel a pull from the past and a pull into the future—both converging in the quiet power of the moment. Her face was full of light, and she smiled broadly, talking about the joy she had as a child.

The importance of the exchange was not contained in the historical record I could have made—although I do think it is important for older adults, their family members, or even an occasional volunteer to collect oral histories. It was in the transformation of her manner.

As I move into the later stages of the adult life span, I recognize the limited amount of time I have to converse directly with those who have witnessed the decades before my birth. I am grateful to the older adults who indulge me by sharing stories of their youth. I hope that I can honor them by carrying some fragment of their experiences and their character into the future.

Have you asked a grandparent, parent or mature older friend to relay a story from their youth? Are these stories primarily about individual events? Or do some of them have stories about national events such as the Great Depression, World War II, the impact of television on the American living room, the first moonwalk, etc? Share a story in the comment section.

Modifying Conversation with Older Adults as Needed
Put Down the Book and Go Visiting

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic experience, Karen--to be able to develop a trusting relationship with someone who can open up so much history to you. "I could feel a pull from the past and a pull into the future—both converging in the quiet power of the moment"--that's a beautiful line.

    I haven't had much contact with my older relatives for years now, and unfortunately (or, I guess, perhaps fortunately, depending on your spiritual perspective) they have all moved on now. I wrote a few things about some of my interactions with them, years ago; most of my recollections of them are grounded in a religious context, but the stories some of them had about growing up in the American West during the Depression, or becoming young adults and marrying during WWII, are powerful regardless of context, I think.