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Conversations: Silence isn’t always golden

66% of Brits who’ve lost older loved ones wish they had more meaningful conversations together to understand the ‘real them’. The poll of 2,000 UK adults who have lost a loved one in the last 10 years, found nearly nine in 10 (88%) wish they had found out more about their lives.

The new research highlights one of the biggest taboos of later life – the conversation chasm between younger and older generations that leaves many never really getting to know their nearest and dearest.

According to the findings, only a third (33%) of people know where their older loved one grew up, or what school they went to, and just 23% knew what their hobbies were when they were younger. Over half (54%) of those questioned said they feel remorse about not getting to know them better, while 39% said these relationships deteriorated in later life because they stopped spending the time to have meaningful conversations.

The research was commissioned by KYN, innovators in later life care, to highlight the importance of getting to know older people as the person they were and the person they are today, and to help families open up before it’s too late.

When asked why people aren’t having these discussions, the top reasons given were not spending enough time with them (29%), not knowing where to start (26%), and worrying about upsetting them (24%). The top topics people found most difficult to approach were death (39%), their loved ones own emotional wellbeing (31%) and illness (28%).

To help get people talking, KYN has worked up with psychologist Honey Langcaster-James, to develop the 21 questions to ask someone about their life.  Drawing on real-life experiences and expertise the list aims to facilitate deeper level conversation and create an environment where family and friends genuinely look forward to spending precious time together. This reflects the way KYN approaches highly personalised care for each of its own residents.

Honey Langcaster-James said: “Often when we think about older friends and family in our lives, we tend to only think about the part of them that has played a specific role in our lives. But our entire lives shape who we are, particularly our childhood and early life experiences, so finding out about these stories can really increase our closeness and strengthen relationships.”

Asking people about themselves, with a genuine curiosity and interest in them, can help fortify their sense of identity, help them feel more connected and less lonely, and boost their mood too. Asking them to recall and tell you about their happiest memories can be especially lovely for them, because they are transported back often to the happiest times in their lives.”

Highlighting the power of deeper conversation, nearly one in four (21%) of those polled have found out a surprising story as the result of asking a meaningful question to an older loved one, with one person even finding out that their grandparent was a prisoner of War in WWII, whilst another discovered their great grandfather was knighted by the Queen.

Honey added: “If you find it difficult to ask questions or build relationships with older friends and family, then I suggest starting with “What have you learned over the course of your life that you think it might be good for me to know.” A question like this not only increases connection, it can make an older person feel valued and respected, and you are likely to learn something helpful too!”

Emma Hewat, Head of Dementia at KYN said: “In later life, sadly it’s quite common to lose sight of people’s identity and only focus on their age or the condition of their health. People’s past experiences, current interests and future wishes are still as relevant in later life as they ever have been and it’s really important to continue to reinforce that through having meaningful conversations.

For instance, prospective residents at KYN can complete their ‘life story – past, present and future’ before they arrive, and continue to update it during their stay at KYN. This not only helps build meaningful relationships with those caring for them, but – if they wish – can help residents share more about themselves with their loved ones too. It can also be a nice keepsake for the family to share with future generations.

“People living with dementia have lived long lives, and to understand how to provide the best care and support for them now, we need to know as much as possible about them and the times they have lived through. Only then we can provide truly person-centred care.”

The 21 questions have been developed by KYN and Honey Langcaster-James to open the conversation chasm between people and their older loved ones below.

If you don’t know where to start, think you don’t have time, or you are worried about upsetting an older loved one, then Honey suggests starting with question 1. You can ask these questions in person or even in a letter, but the important thing is that you’ll be showing interest and giving your loved one an opportunity to open up to you.

  1. What have you learned over the course of your life that you can pass on to me – what do you think it would be good for me to know?
  2. Tell me about some of your earliest memories.
  3. Where were you born and raised, and what was it like there while you were growing up?
  4. What was your childhood like overall and what is your fondest memory from when you were young?
  5. What were your school days like and what did you most enjoy learning about at school?
  6. What hobbies and interests did you have, and what did you most enjoying doing in your free time when you were younger?
  7. What is the most surprising thing you think people don’t know about you?
  8. What was your favourite music or artist when you were growing up and why?
  9. What has been the most interesting job you’ve ever done?
  10. Who have you loved during your life, how did you first meet them, and how did your love story unfold?
  11. What is the most significant historical moment you lived through or witnessed and what did you think about it all?
  12. What was your favourite decade overall and why?
  13. Who were your role models and who influenced you in your life and why?
  14. Where was the most interesting place you ever travelled to and what did you make of the place?
  15. What was the most challenging obstacle you had to overcome in your life and what did you learn from that?
  16. What is your proudest accomplishment in life and why?
  17. Looking back, what advice would you give to your younger self?
  18. What’s the best book you ever read and why?
  19. What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen throughout your lifetime?
  20. What’s the funniest thing that ever happened in your life and what makes you laugh?
  21. What are your hopes for the future and how would you most like to be remembered?

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