I recently flew to California to visit my grandparents. They live on the central coast in a sleepy tourist/retirement town that was formerly a fishing village. It’s always great to see them, to garner wisdom from their deep experience, and to see my grandmother’s love for her great grandchildren.
While I love visiting with my grandparents, I find that bridging the generational gap can be hard. They were raised during the Great Depression, served in the Army during WWII, and then rose out of poverty through hard-work and sacrifice in the post-war boom. As a millennial, my cultural context is more driven by the rise of technology (the internet, social media, smartphones, etc.) than a particular war or struggle to provide for my family.
The rich differences in our cultural contexts, histories, experiences, and ways of thinking provide a tremendous landscape to learn from each other, but these same differences can make communicating difficult.
Here are some things that I’ve learned in communicating with my grandparents that may help to bridge the generational gap.
Put Down Your iPhone
Who says that? Really? The truth is that my grandparents, and likely yours, think that it is disrespectful if you are interacting with your phone non-stop while they’re trying to have a conversation with you. This can prevent you from learning from your grandparents’ rich histories and life experiences and from building the trust that leads to deeper conversations.
When my grandparents are doing something, they’re fully engaged. When my grandma used to cook, her mind was focused on making sure the rue for the gravy was not burning and on cooking the biscuits and bacon to perfection. When my grandpa is fishing, he is concentrating on where to locate the fish, on what tackle to use, and on how to perfectly position the boat. When they talk to me, they’re listening intently to what I have to say or carefully crafting a thoughtful response.
We have a new term for this: mindfulness. Which is a sense of engagement with the current time and place. My grandparents don’t need that term; they have lived it. Yes, they had fewer distractions in the form of technology, which have made engaging in the here and now more difficult. So, turn off the notifications, let go of your longing for a few more digital likes on Instagram, climb off the hedonic treadmill, quit posting and start engaging. You have a lot to learn from your grandparents so you need to interact through the medium with which they’re most comfortable: talking face-to-face.
Talk about the Past
So, if you’re going to talk with your grandparents, you have to find something to talk about. Make it easy on both of you and talk about the past. Your grandparents are likely fluent in many national, local, and familial histories that are fascinating and will enrich your life.
In case you haven’t heard, which is unlikely, California is having a water crisis. There is not enough water for farmers in the Central Valley to grow crops, horrific wild fires are ravaging homes, and some areas face a shortage of potable water. My grandpa has a unique perspective on this crisis.
In the middle of California is a giant valley called the Central Valley and to the east are the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Central Valley is now some of the most productive farm land in the world, but much of that farmland was once covered by the largest fresh water lake west of the Mississippi: Tulare Lake. In the spring and summer, the snow-pack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range would melt and the rivers carrying this water would flood the Central Valley expanding and replenishing the lake.
Over time, the waters that fed Tulare Lake were diverted for agricultural and other uses. To control flooding and generate power, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Pine Flat dam, which reduced the water flowing out of the Sierra Nevadas to feed the lake. Other dams were built over time.
Having seen the fertility of the lake basin, an enterprising entrepreneur name J.G. Boswell devised a scheme to build levies, pump out the water from the lake basin, and farm the lake basin through flood irrigation. This innovative technique led J.G. Boswell’s company to become one of the largest farming operations in the world. The land at the bottom of the lake basin turned out to be extremely fertile, but the lake continued to shrink. My grandfather saw firsthand as farmers had to dig deeper and deeper wells to feed their crops as the water table dropped and the flow of water from the rivers that fed the lake began to decline.
Without listening and engaging, I never would have heard this rich history and perspective on the water crisis. By talking about the past with my grandpa, my knowledge, of how and why we got to where we are, grew exponentially. From there we began discussing potential solutions, from canals to desalination plants (and their costs).
Talk about Your Family
This is a great subject for your grandparents, since they know perhaps more about your parents and uncles/aunts and cousins than anyone else. You can learn from your grandparents why your cousin struggled in business, how your great-grandpa was addicted to poker and booze, why someone in your family moved away, or how your grandparents sought to help a family member out through tough life circumstances. It’s often easier to learn from others’ mistakes and successes if you garner the right lessons. You can glean from their stories and wisdom to gain the insights that you need for your life as you face similar and different circumstances to those of your family.
Think of talking about your family with your grandparents like you’re reading celebrity gossip online, only it is instructive and insightful, and the events happened to people you probably know and hopefully care about. If your grandparents are like mine, they don’t like to gossip, so the nature of the conversation will be more instructive, illustrative, and enlightening than degrading. This takes us to our next point.
Talk about the Future, Namely, Your Future
One of the best, some might contend the worst, parts about talking with your grandparents is that they’re deeply interested in your future and wellbeing. You are, after all, a major part of their legacy. My grandparents have offered sound advice on relationships, faith in Christ, day-to-day living, handling complex relationships and situations, managing money, and general advice on how to go about my life. Had I listened a little closer, this advice would have served as a beacon for years to come.
As a teenager, I began getting interested in investing in the stock market during the height of the dot-com boom of the late nineties. I couldn’t keep my ambitions hidden, so my grandpa warned me on numerous occasions that Wall Street was full of people that are smarter than me, probably more corrupt, and that would do anything to figure out a way to take away my money.
Having watched a piece on a teenager getting rich from buying penny stocks on 60 Minutes, I knew better than my grandpa, so I went ahead and bought some stocks anyway.
Grandpa was right. The dot-com bubble burst and I lost essentially all of my $500; a lot of money to a teenager at the time. It was a hard lesson to learn. I made the mistake over and over again during the next several years: losing nearly all of what I had saved or been given. Because my wages were low, it took a long time to earn the money back; it was painful.
I considered by Grandpa’s advice as a cultural relic of having grown up in the Great Depression; a quirk of a by-gone era of Wall Street swindlers and the average joes left to pick up the pieces. What I didn’t realize is that his advice was much more nuanced and insightful than I had originally perceived.
My grandpa’s advice around money and investment was essentially that you need to be shrewd, execute a strategy, use a long-term focus, invest in something you’re close to and can control, and work hard. He described in detail how he built up his land leveling business by working six days a week, buying surplus government equipment at low prices and then hiring his brother-in-law to keep the equipment in tip-top shape.
My grandpa was once working on a land leveling project, but they’d hit some hard pan and costs were rising. Continuing to fight the hard pan would have been very expensive. Shrewdly, my Grandpa reviewed the contract and found the tolerances permitted that the grade could be up to 10 inches higher or lower than the spec. When the inspector came out to survey the completed project, he asked my grandpa if he knew that the grade was 10 inches high along the entire plane. He did know that; the project was completed to the requirements and everyone was happy.
Grandpa had worked, and learned, and knew, and managed a business that he could control until it was successful. Not a process far from those of his farming roots.
Had I seen my grandpa’s advice in the right context, I wouldn’t have invested in the stock market. I would not have invested in something far away from me, that I could not control, and which I did not understand. I probably would have further invested in my education, putting in the effort and money and time tilling the soil of my human capital until it yielded fruit. Investing for the long term in something I could control.
Pick up Your iPhone
I know; I told you to put it down a couple of paragraphs ago, but hear me out.
Apple had a cute Christmas commercial a couple of years ago. It showed a family enjoying time together, making a snow man, talking around the Christmas tree, and genuinely engaging and interacting with each other. Noticeably distracted from the interactions was a young somewhat anti-social, teenage boy that was playing with his iPhone. At the end of the commercial, the boy turns it around by showing his family a sweet video highlighting the special moments they shared together; he had been documenting their joy.
If used correctly, your use of technology can serve as a gateway to a much larger world for your grandparents. I know; it sounds crazy. What you can do though, is help them either engage with other family members (FaceTime, Skype, Instagram, or Facebook) or learn about the world around them. Here are a couple of examples.
My parents bought my grandpa an iPad with a cellular chip so it would stay connected to the internet. He doesn’t use it much. My aunt taught him how to watch fishing videos on YouTube. I send him emails with pictures of our family from time to time, but they seem to disappear into a black-hole; that’s okay. What the iPad did do, is give my grandpa a sense for how vast the amount of information is out there.
While we were talking about the water crisis in California, grandpa would ask me to look up things to enrich our conversation. At one point, I looked up when Pine Flat Dam was constructed (1954 completion – thank you, Wikipedia!) and looked at maps of Tulare Lake over time. After a while, he would just ask me to look something up on my computer (i.e. smartphone).
I also showed my grandpa pictures from a recent fishing trip off of Hilton Head Island, SC. My grandpa got to see the 24” red drum that my nephews were holding, see a video of the floppy bait fish that our guide caught, and see the tackle get-up. I think that it was a hit. My grandpa had fished commercially for a while and still fishes on occasion even though he is 94 years old.
Grandparents love grandchildren. They even love photos of grandchildren. If you can get your grandparents on Facebook or Instagram, and you or your spouse posts regularly, then they can see a steady stream of photos of the grandchildren. My mom, who is in her 70’s, was slow to join Facebook despite being very social and intensely curious about what is going on in other people’s lives. My wife spent an afternoon helping her create an account, installing the app on her phone and iPad, and showing her how to use it. Now, my mom is on Facebook almost everyday and tells me how cute my son is in this and that photo.
Technology Acceptance Theorem (i.e. Will they use that stuff?)
After you’ve spent your precious time and money on helping your grandparents, or parents, acquire and learn how to use a technology, it can be very frustrating to see them not make full use of it or not use it at all.
My wife and I bought my parents a Google Home for Christmas a couple of years ago. To teach them how to use it, I asked it all sorts of questions (sports scores, weather, general trivia, etc.), had it play music that they liked, and even had it call my mom’s cell phone when she had misplaced the phone in the house. To this day, the only person that uses the Google Home is my dad. He asks it to “bark like a dog” so that their dog will start howling in response.
It can be even worse if you have to serve as some sort of always-on-call tech support. “Hey, the tv won’t work? I think that your nephew unplugged something last time he was here.” Me: “Have you tried hitting the ‘input’ button?”. At least they’re trying to use it.
There’s a a theory called the Technology Acceptance Model that postulates that the easier to use and the more useful a technology is, the more likely the user is to use it. That makes sense. If something is very useful, but hard to use (I’m looking at you Adobe Photoshop CC), then some people who really need it will spend the time and effort to learn it. If a technology is easy to use and useful, think iPads or the Nintendo Wii back in the day, then many people will use it.
So, to shoot for success when you’re trying to help your grandparents adopt a new technology, you need to make sure it meets those two requirements: easy to use and very useful.
How easy to use? Depends on your grandparents’ digital literacy, but based on my grandparents’ skills, it needs to be very easy to use.
One technology that my grandpa does make use of is a cellphone. This cellphone is not an iPhone or a Google Pixel. It is a flip phone (think StarTac like device) and with good reason. When the phone is making the annoying chime and my grandpa is trying to answer it, he doesn’t want to have to look for a button with tiny font that says “Send”, “Connect”, or has a phone icon it. He just flips it open and starts talking.
Other things that you can do to lower the bar so that they’re more likely to use a technology:
Create keyboard shortcuts to key pages or apps
Install apps and create accounts for them
Add contacts of friends or family to their devices so they can tap on names or ask Alexa to call so-and-so, instead of trying to type in a number
Increase font size settings to make content easy-to-read
Set the device to auto-update, automatically connect, and automatically log-in to wireless networks
On that last point, maintenance versus the initial setup period can be tough since you probably won’t be there to help when something goes wrong. You need the device to be as maintenance-free as possible since your grandparents probably can’t troubleshoot the problem. So during setup, go the extra mile and try to anticipate/automate away future maintenance issues.
The Robot Vacuum
My grandparent’s house has a side driveway that backs up to a small backyard. In the driveway there are several assorted boat pieces laying around. In the back yard is a Meyer Lemon Tree, a pair of avocado trees that don’t produce much fruit anymore, and a storage shed for his fishing poles . To the right in the driveway are his two boats. When I walked back there on my visit, there was a new addition: a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner.
I asked my grandpa about the Roomba, and all I got was a mumbled response about “That thing!” Or maybe I didn’t hear him because I was checking my phone. IDK, I was probably trying to relieve my anxiety that he’d left a several hundred-dollar piece of fine engineering in the driveway to be destroyed. Doesn’t he know what happens to household electronic devices left to the elements? I know what happens. Goodbye, original Game Boy.
It turns out that my aunt and uncle and my parents had bought the vacuum as a gift for my grandparents. It made sense. My grandma doesn’t have enough energy to vacuum anymore, and so my grandpa does all of the vacuuming. The robot vacuum would relieve some of the caregiver’s burden from my grandpa by allowing him to focus on cooking or other tasks.
I have a Roomba vacuum that my in-laws gave my wife and I as a house warming gift when we moved into our first house. Starting at 10:00 pm every night, it dutifully vacuums the first floor of our house. Besides the noise, unlikely to bother my grandparents, it does a pretty bang-up job.
Why did my grandparents stick the vacuum outside to die? The only thing that I can figure, is that the vacuum got caught on their old, wavy carpet or it was full, then it threw some error code, which frustrated my grandpa and led him to take it out back. So, there it sits on the table in the driveway; a good intention short circuited by my grandpa and mother nature. “That thing!”