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Young and old together

14 February 2014

Communication need not be strained, says David Winter


I TOOK the funeral of a 95-year-old man. Present at the service were about 20 young people, who spoke of his wonderful relationship with them. Some were his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but not all. They all spoke of him as a wonderful friend, someone who talked to them as equals, was interested in what they did, and told them stories of his own childhood.

It was interesting to note their total disregard of his age as a factor in their relationship with him. I don't suppose this man was particularly saintly. What he had was humanity, and that translated into an ability to connect with people, especially young people.

For some, that comes easily, as I suspect it did for him. For others, it is more difficult. We are afraid of saying the wrong thing, but what they want is warmth, interest, confidence, and friendliness. Age is no barrier to those.

We can tell them about our lives, which to them are part of the history they learn at school. They can tell us about their lives, which are not as different from ours at their age as we might imagine. Across the decades, one human heart speaks to another.

Yet the fact is that those of us who are old do often feel inhibited in our relationship with young people, even those we have known since they were born. Some topics are difficult. Teasing a teenager about boyfriends or girlfriends creates embarrassment or, alternatively, silent resentment: you have ventured into private territory.

That leaves, however, mountains of topics to explore, things in which we are both (and that is important) genuinely interested. They know, as we would, when someone is raising a subject not because they're genuinely interested in it, but because it's a "topic of conversation".

If we know them well, we shall be aware of the things they enjoy. It may be football, rugby, or tennis. It might be drama, fashion, Facebook, or a TV programme. It might be places they have visited, which we also know. Put like that, their interests are not all that different from those of an 80-year-old.

The best catalyst for any relationship, however, is humour. Sometimes children will laugh at us, which can take us aback, but is actually a sign of acceptance. Old people do sometimes get a famous name wrong, or make little bodily eruptions that we hope others cannot hear. Young ears will hear, but their laughter is not cruel, and joining in with it shows that we are part of the comedy, not an unwilling accessory to it.

Most children love their grandparents. It is a particular kind of love, born of familiarity and kinship, but nourished by a "lived-in" relationship. We know them, possibly better than they know themselves, but they also know us, and that intimacy of knowledge binds us together in a sort of conspiracy of shared things.

One of those shared things can be faith. In the New Testament, Timothy was influenced by his grandmother. She, we learn, was the original source of his faith. So we shall let the only grandmother identified as such in the New Testament (and possibly, depending on which translation you use, the whole Bible) stand tall.

"I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you" (2 Timothy 1.5).

This is the third of four edited extracts from At the End of the Day: Enjoying life in the departure lounge by David Winter (BRF, £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.29); 978-0-85746-057-8; Features, 10 January.

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