February 23rd, 2011 at 3:30 am
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Conversation starters for meaningful visits

by Kathryn Kilpatrick, M.A. CCC/SLP

Families often share that sometimes they go to visit an older adult and soon the conversation goes back to the same topics. With hearing, vision and memory or speech problems, that can mean it is time to bring in some new ways to start a conversation.

Many years ago I had a patient who had a stroke and very limited speech. She was more likely to just add a spontaneous comment rather than ask you a question or answer one directed to her. On the day when her friends from out of town came to visit, I decided to just sit on the steps and eavesdrop on their conversations. I wanted to see if she had more speech when she was with people she had known for decades. They were unprepared for how little she was able to talk and, once they had exchanged greetings, the conversation centered on who was sick, divorced, in the hospital and other less positive topics. When they came downstairs for a lunch prepared by the daughter, I took several members of the group aside and gave them some of the conversation starters I use with my patients and their families.

In this situation, it would be better if someone read the questions with the greatest appeal, and the visitors would take turns answering. This way their friend could enjoy their stories, share a comment here and there, and in some cases share a thought of her own. Directly asking her the question was discouraged since it would be too stressful for her at this stage in her recovery. When the daughter noticed how well this strategy was working, she gave them her mother’s album with pictures of trips this group had taken. Everyone was more relaxed and it is more likely her friends will bring some of their own conversation starters next time.

When I came for a follow-up therapy session, I asked my patient how it went. She said it was hard to talk but she enjoyed the laughter and reminiscing about their lives together. Now that the daughter had some ideas on what was the best approach, she was able to give other visitors some ideas. One of the friends from her garden club brought the spring seed catalogs and they went through the pages together. When she was more relaxed, my patient had more successful speech attempts although word finding was still a major problem for her.

One of her cousins decided that she would bring in some tapes of the services from a church they used to attend together. She noticed her cousin was singing the words of the songs more easily than she could speak them. On her next visit she brought in a few new CD’s that they enjoyed listening to while having lunch and a dessert on her patio.

Meeting someone where they are opens the doors to a lot of options. Centering visits on something familiar and more positive can offer the possibility of an ongoing conversation. For those who less able to participate, surrounding them with stories and fond memories may be all that a person needs to feel valued. For additional ideas, refer to Creating Time Well Spent: Enhancing Your Visits with an Older Adult

“In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us.” Flora Edwards

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