Visiting the Elderly
Everyone can benefit during intergenerational visits.
Visiting older family or friends is something that happens in most people’s lives. I vividly remember my first experience, which happened in 1954. My Mom, who hailed from a small-town in Southern Indiana, loaded us four children in our red-and-white Rocket 88, a 1954 Oldsmobile, and took us to see my grandfather’s mother, “MawMaw,” who at 94 was literally lying on her deathbed at his sister’s Mae and Johnny’s farm.
Although we children had very little contact with her, she was family and Mom wanted her to see our new baby sister, Nancy Elizabeth, recently born in Bloomington, Indiana. I guess I was almost 8 years old, and I remember my older brother, sister and me having to get cleaned up before the visit.
MawMaw said very little that I could hear, and she didn’t sit up, smile, or move. She was skin and bones, eating only milk toast and I remember Mae holding up the bed quilt cover to show us how her toe bones protruded. I didn’t think much about Mae telling us that MawMaw had seen Abraham Lincoln give a stump speech when she was a little girl, I guess because at eight I didn’t know much about American history. Later in life, when I became a middle school teacher and eventually a teacher educator at the University of Georgia, I would tell my students that I was a living link to Abraham Lincoln because I had met someone who saw him give a stump speech in 1863. The students’ reaction was often “Wow, are you old!” I would reply with something like, that’s true, back then we didn’t have Walmart, Tractor Supply, or McDonalds. There weren’t any Interstate highways, iPads, laptop computers, or smart phones.
I’ve thought about that 1954 visit many times and now that I’m 74 I have a better perspective on having children visit the elderly. As an 8-year-old in 1954, all I knew at the time was that I was uncomfortable in that setting and wanted to go outside to play. Mae and her husband, Johnny lived in a small farmhouse on a modest 20-acre tract of land. Johnny had been a jack-of-all-trades farmer and Mae the ideal farm wife. Both were gray-haired and in their early 60s on the day of our visit.
Twenty years later my wife and I went out to Mae and Johnny’s farm so they could see our firstborn. They were now in their late 80s, but we had a good visit. Just before we left, we gathered on their front porch where Johnny often sat in a black rocking chair smoking his handmade corn cob pipe while watching who was coming and going down the gravel road in front of their house. Johnny didn’t say as much as Mae during our visit, but before we left, he gave me this advice, “Have all the fun you can while you are young, because it gets pretty slow later in life.” Now with us siblings in our mid to late 70s, we better appreciate what he was telling us about later life.
From a child’s point of view, visiting an older family member or friend is not going to be at the top of their list of fun things to do. Old people often smell funny and have the heat turned up too high. They wobble when they walk. They don’t play video games or even follow sports. If they offer you something to eat, it may not be fresh whether homemade or store-bought. Older people typically can’t see as well, hear as well, or smell odors as well as they once did. Their stories, if they are able and willing to tell them, may be about activities you have never experienced or past events that you know little about. Because they often don’t feel well, they can be grouchy. Most have seen some difficult days in their lives. Their view of the future is justifiably less than rosy, and their memory of the past may be fading.
I can’t believe that MawMaw got much out of our 1954 visit as I’m not sure she even recognized we three older children and didn’t even reach out to touch our new baby. She might have recognized Mom, of course, since Mom was born in 1920 and had known her for many years. But to achieve that recognition would have required a much longer visit.
Perhaps Mae and Johnny enjoyed our visit, however. It was one of the last times we saw them, and they seemed pleased with our effort to visit. We all took Johnny’s advice, having fun when we were young but also working as hard as he did to own and operate his small farm, build their small house, and have three successful children.
So here is my take on this visit. For MawMaw it was not a burden and may have had some positive influence. Aunt Mae and Johnny probably enjoyed our visit, seeing all of us, the new baby, and my Mother. The visit probably brought a little life into their otherwise mundane day.
For me and my older sister and brother it was a never forgotten, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Just think of it, we met a 94-year-old relative who as a 4-year-old child had seen Abraham Lincoln deliver a stump speech! It wasn’t a long visit and we children and our Mother felt better for doing it. MawMaw may not have gotten much out of our visit, but Mae and Johnny did, and so did all of us by receiving Johnny’s wise advice in learning about our connection to the past.
From this and many other family and friends visits over the years, here are a few ideas that might make visiting old folk better:
•. Don’t just drop in unexpectedly. Even a call shortly before you arrive may be insufficient. Attempt to nail down a date and time that is best for the older person.
• Consider how you and your older friend will benefit from your visit. “I just wanted to see you!” may be enough for you both, but you must consider a few other potential concerns, such as how much your visit might interrupt necessary routines, inconvenience others, or even emotionally upset the elder person.
• Consider the elder person’s stamina, physical and mental health, and ability to engage in extended conversation. A short visit rather than long may be easier for everyone to handle.
• Bring some sort of gift with you. It could be as simple as a chocolate bar, some cookies you just made, or a warm pair of socks.
• Avoid talking about negative topics or bad past experiences. Focus instead on good news and the joyful times that you shared. Leaving an old person with a review of regrets and a fear of new threats (e.g., COVID pandemic; global warming) isn’t kind.
• If your visit has a specific purpose or goal such as to get something from the person such as a signature on a legal document or permission to take a cherished memento, be certain to explain that to the primary caregiver.
In my opinion, most older people enjoy seeing their old friends, their sons, and daughters and of course, any grandchildren. It takes some effort to visit an elderly person, but if you consider some of the tips above it may turn out to be something you will remember forever.