Harvest Elder Wisdom Before It’s Too Late

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

I teach public speaking to college students. They dread the required class, though many tell me they look back on it as a favorite. Even after many of them discover they like it, they still struggle with my final assignment.

That last assignment requires them to talk with an elderly person (preferably someone who doesn’t get many visitors). They seek wisdom they can share with their classmates via a speech.

Our culture tends to keep us siloed in many ways. We seldom talk with people of different political bents, different social levels, or different ages than ourselves. Confirmation bias is just part of human psychology. Studies show that the nature of social media only exacerbates that tendency.

Of course, just because someone is old doesn’t mean they’re wise. But it’s easy to stereotype people with whom we don’t interact. This is how we miss out on their value.

Dreading the assignment, some students try to wiggle out of it in all kinds of ways. One of my colleagues uses the task in one of her classes. One day she overheard two students in the hallway. One said to the other, “I’m dropping this class! I don’t wanna talk to no old people! They smell funny!”

Experience suggests those two have no idea what they missed by ducking the assignment. Several have called it life-changing. More than a few continue to visit their interviewee after the semester ends.

It’s a win for everyone. The students learn something helpful in managing their lives. The older folks have not only some company but also the pleasure of telling their stories.

To their surprise, students learn that people they think of as old and slow had some amazing experiences earlier in their lives. One student, for instance, learned that her interviewee had been a Vegas showgirl. Another recounted harrowing stories from his interviewee’s time as a Marine.

You have resources you take for granted in your life. Almost certainly, you have older relatives, and if you don’t, you have friends who do. The pandemic may restrict your ability to sit with someone in person, but older people still have telephones.

Sometimes the interviewee passes away before the student delivers the speech, making it very emotional. At least three times in the last five years, the interviewee died before the student could conduct the interview.

So think of someone you could have a conversation like this with. If it makes it easier, tell them it’s an assignment — no need to explain that I’m not grading you. But don’t wait too long, or you may only have regret over a missed opportunity.

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