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Cutting through the chatter

I'm always surprised when someone suggests I write about "communication." My immediate reaction (this may seem a little harsh) is usually, "But it's such a bland, one-dimensional topic."

Today I've reconsidered. After seeing so many lonely-looking elders in public settings over the holidays, I decided this subject needs to be tackled.

Have you observed it? Aging persons sitting in silence at large gatherings? Chatter is occurring around them, but they appear distant and uninvolved. There are reasons. If you're hearing-impaired and the room is noisy, it's almost impossible to participate actively in a conversation. If you're also memory-challenged, it's even harder. Visual difficulties can be deterrents. As aging adults, many of us have all that going on — and more. I have solutions.

One idea: "Be interested, instead of interesting." Think about it this way — next time you see someone looking a little bereft (whatever the age) inquire about their well-being. Not just "How are you?" but an authentic "How are you — really?" Ask not-too-personal, open-ended questions that begin with "How" or 'What" and then actively attend to the answers. Achieve eye contact, nod or even grunt a little as you listen. It's absolutely amazing what you can learn.

I had a conversation with an 80-something woman wearing red-and-white striped Dr. Seuss stockings who told me that Preparation-H is a "remarkable wrinkle cream" (it seemed to work extremely well for her) and "knitting is one answer to caregiver depression." I had another exchange with a confident-appearing older adult in an airport. She advised me about how to pack for a week away using one small roll-on suitcase. (In case you're planning winter travel, her ideas included wearing three layers en route, taking one pair of "totally-comfortable" shoes and placing rubberized shoe-covers and immediate-access items in a backpack that "doubles as purse and pillow.")

Here's another idea: Ask questions. We all like to be asked. When you ask a question (or respond to one) remember the aging ear needs a voice that's slowed and deepened a little — and conversation that's offered in a direct, face-to-face manner. Using gestures might be appropriate. As illustration, "I'm looking for a new restaurant — do you have one you love?" Perhaps coupled with a hand-to-mouth movement and a lick-your-lips smile? Who knows, you could end up with an invitation to dinner.

My final idea. Load for success. Use humor and maximize opportunities for light-hearted, full-of-laughter conversations. The kind discussed in the recently published book, "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People." The author is Henry Alford who is, of all things, a youngish, investigative humorist.

I had a conversation with a severely memory-impaired elder over the holidays. I started it with "It's good to see you"¦" His grinning response was, "It's good to be seen." His daughter later told me he cannot remember her name and does not recognize his wife of 30 years, but he often uses that line and always gets a laugh. Good line — good to laugh. After all, in the end, isn't laughter the absolutely best form of communication?

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.