March 26, 2009

When you interview your elderly parents

Some tips on Drawing Out Wisdom from Parents

Even though my parents lived into their 70s and 80s, I could never bring myself to ask them some important questions about the lessons they’d learned in life. Like many of my generation, I went straight from prolonged adolescent rebellion to reluctant adult caregiving without pausing to wonder what grown-up wisdom my parents might have to offer…until it was too late.

Henry Alford didn’t make that mistake. The author of “How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People” not only persuaded his mother and stepfather to talk candidly about their lives, he managed to get all kinds of colorful and famous people over age 70 — including Phyllis Diller, Harold Bloom and Edward Albee — to share the wisdom, and in some cases the folly, of their life experiences. His 262-page book is filled with their insights, along with deathbed confessions, excerpts from diaries and an exploration of the meaning of wisdom itself

Whether your parents are eccentric, crotchety or boring, Mr. Alford’s techniques may help you get them to open up and share their wisdom. Here’s what he told me.

• “Explain to them specifically why you want to interview them, and what people who read or watch the interview stand to gain from the experience.” Tell them if you want to keep the stories all for yourself. Or perhaps you want to pass them on to your children.

• “Pace yourself — don’t open with a question about sex, war crimes or contemporary recording artists.”

• “Exhibit the manner or behavior you’re hoping to elicit — be philosophical to incite philosophizing, be potty-mouthed to incite potty-mouthism.”

• Do not expect earth-shattering revelations. If your parents are eating out of trash cans or busy putting together Ponzi schemes, you probably are already on to them.

• Do not fear that delving into the past will precipitate a family rift — unless one is on the verge of happening anyway, which was the situation in Mr. Alford’s family. Shortly after his interview, Mr. Alford’s stepfather overdosed on sleeping pills, which caused Mr. Alford’s mother, furious that her husband of more than 30 years had abandoned his commitment to sobriety, to throw him out of the house, end the marriage and move by herself to a retirement community 580 miles away.

• As they reflect on their life experiences, urge your parents to go beyond pearls of wisdom and clichés like “Life is a journey,” “Do what you love,” or “Accept what you can’t change.” Instead, urge them to relate their own personal, idiosyncratic nuggets of wisdom. Mr. Alford dubs these summations of life’s wisdom “elderisms.” (In his book, he explains the “rules” for constructing a proper elderism are like those for creating an aphorism: it must be brief, definitive, personal and have a twist.)

Posted by Jill Fallon at March 26, 2009 3:48 PM | Permalink