The value of listening to older people’s stories
Updated: Feb 2
Anna Chaplain Eileen Simmons from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, ponders the value of listening carefully to people who are rich in experience:
What do people think when they look at me? Definitely an old woman, slightly stooped, with loads of wrinkles. But first impressions do not tell you much about the real me and yet everything they see is true. Yes, I am 82 years old, although I can still walk about four miles on a good day, I am stooped and wrinkled. None of this is a problem. I am very healthy.
So when people look at older people the first impression may be accurate, but for example, with our next-door neighbour (now deceased) they would not have known he was the local boys’ grammar school’s most famous past student, who was a top physicist advising the government during World War II. To know about older people we need to listen to their stories.
Individuals in their 70s, 80s and 90s, particularly females, often have not had the educational advantages of younger people. I have heard amazing stories of women who had little secondary education (some left school at 14 years old) and yet achieved remarkably.
One woman in her mid-eighties simply went to work in an office, but over the years progressed to personnel management and into a very senior HR role in a national company. In retirement, she became a magistrate and contributed so much to the community.
Sometimes when I am visiting individuals I realise just how much they enjoy being asked about their life stories. Many have been widowed and after a few years, apart from immediate families, no one else listens to their memories of their deceased wife or husband. I may just ask if they will tell me a bit more of what he or she was like. One example with one of my telephone befriending calls happened just before Christmas when I did this and she so so happily told me all the wonderfully outrageous things her husband had done and said at family gatherings. I have never experienced the death of a spouse and always tell others that until it happens no one could understand.
If I know of a bereavement I continue to ask. Next week, for example, it is the sixth anniversary of A’s wife’s death and I shall phone him on that day and encourage him to talk about her and their life together.
I think Anna Chaplains have so much to offer as they give time – time to listen, time to hear individual’s stories – and in doing so show care and love.