How to Spend Your Summer: Speak with Elderly People

A program in the Netherlands made the news two years ago for its innovative approach to tackling loneliness and social isolation among elderly people.

As part of this program, Dutch university students stay rent-free in an intergenerational residence populated by both students and seniors on the condition that they spend 30 hours of their time a month with their elderly neighbors. The students keep the seniors company, assist them with tasks like computer use, and teach them new skills.

This program offers a challenge to contemporary attitudes about aging, which tend to isolate elderly people from the world at large. While programs like this don’t yet exist everywhere, there are many ways that you, too, can make time for older people in your family or your community.

The first and most obvious way to do this is to pay a visit to grandparents, great aunts or uncles, or other elderly relatives. If you do so with a special purpose in mind—for example, to learn about your family’s history, or about life in another time or place—then it often helps to give your questions a clear formal structure, almost as a journalist would, especially if your relatives are normally reluctant to speak about the past.

For example, my mother was able to record her father’s memories of the Second World War by asking him to write them down as an imaginary letter to me, his grandchild. This meant that he could arrange his memories like a story and thus recall them more easily.

Bear in mind, though, that the most fascinating things people tell you sometimes come out of nowhere or have to be inferred from between the lines. When my grandfather spoke of his childhood in rural Scotland, he mentioned that he and his siblings would eat fresh, raw turnips “like ice cream”—a comment that brought home for me at the time just how different his life had been from my own.

My grandfather also loved to recite Scottish poems from memory, a quality that I remember fondly given my own love of poetry. These encounters with elders can often help us to make sense of our own lives and tie them to bigger stories—in other words, to histories.

If it’s not possible to visit family members, look for volunteer initiatives in your community; you may find programs that match seniors with students who can read to them, teach them skills, or simply spend time with them.

A program in Brazil, for example, matches language students with American seniors. The seniors help the students with their conversational English, and they also benefit from the social interaction. Programs like this highlight the great reciprocal benefits of spending time with seniors.

When you’re a young person about to embark on your college career, it can often seem like comparatively little things have an outsized significance.You may worry about getting the “perfect” SAT score, or getting accepted into the “perfect” school, or selecting the “perfect” major.

Yet spending time with elders teaches us how to put things in proper perspective; if you live for a hundred years, it’s not likely that you’ll still be thinking about what would have happened if you studied structural rather than electrical engineering. Instead, you’ll probably be savoring the memories of people and things you love.

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