How to Respect Your Elders

Three Methods:Providing Help to an ElderConnecting with an ElderHonoring Heritage and Traditions

If there's an older person in your life, you may want to connect with them but aren't sure how to. Generally, showing respect and interest in an elder is the first step toward forming a meaningful connection. Respecting your elders is a great way to learn about your heritage, your family, and even who you are.

Method 1
Providing Help to an Elder

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    Offer to provide support. Elders often need some kind of support with simple day to day tasks. They may need help reading their mail, or they may need almost constant care due to health concerns. Begin by letting the elder in your life know that you would like to provide help.[1]
    • Don’t make assumptions about what the person needs or wants. Always ask before providing any kind of help. If you don’t, the person may feel that you think they’re incompetent or don’t respect them.
    • You can say something like, “Grandmother, I know you may not need it, but if you’d like some help around the house or running errands, I’d love to do that for you.”
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    Take on the responsibilities that you can. You might not be able to provide all of the care that the person needs. For example, if someone needs nursing around the clock, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to provide that. However, you can take on the responsibility of hiring and paying a nurse, or arranging for a rotation of family members to provide the necessary care.[2]
    • In some cultures, it’s considered disrespectful or a failure to hire someone outside the family to care for an elder.
    • Don’t overextend yourself. Taking care of an elder may create some change in your life, but it shouldn’t cause you to lose your job or abandon your other obligations.
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    Help them stay healthy. Elders may have a hard time staying active and eating healthy meals. They may be less mobile than they used to be. Shopping and cooking may be difficult for them. Do what you can to make sure they’re eating right and getting gentle exercise.[3]
    • Visit the person regularly and go for a walk with them. Even a short walk provides fresh air and movement.
    • Bring them food when you come for a visit. You can bring food you’ve prepared ahead of time, or groceries they can easily make use of. That way, they won’t need to expend a lot of energy to get a nutritious meal.
    • If you can’t bring them food, look into programs such as Meals on Wheels that deliver food to the elderly.
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    Let them know you respect their autonomy. Losing the ability to take care of oneself can be difficult and sometimes embarrassing for people. Make sure that the elder knows that you still respect them and don’t think of them as infirm.[4]
    • You can say things like, “I know you can cook for yourself, but I enjoy making meals that I can share with you.”
    • You can also say, “Please let me know if there’s anything you need. I’m happy to help, but I can respect that you like to do things on your own.”

Method 2
Connecting with an Elder

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    Visit them. Life can be lonely for elders. If they don’t have a spouse or family living with them, they may not see very many people on a regular basis. Try to visit them whenever you can make the time.[5]
    • If you can’t visit regularly because of distance, make a point of calling to talk to them on the phone.
    • Try to make visits or calls on a regular schedule. Sometimes surprise visits or irregular schedules can be disorienting for an elder. Visiting every Wednesday afternoon, for example, can be a regular activity that the person can look forward to.
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    Slow down. As people age, they process things and move more slowly. Your elder may need you to walk more slowly or repeat things that you say. Avoid showing impatience and remember that they’re doing all they can to keep up.[6]
    • Elders may have a particularly difficult time using or understanding newer technology. You may need to go very slowly when showing them how to use it, or you may choose to not introduce new technologies into their lives.
    • Let the elder set the pace for things like walking or preparing meals.
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    Be polite. Most elders will have a strong sense of propriety and etiquette. Their expectations for how people talk to each other are likely very different than yours. Don’t use the same kinds of slang and casual manners that you would use around your peers.[7]
    • If the elder is not a member of your family, refer to them as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. If they tell you to call them by their first name, you can then feel free to do so.
    • In some cultures, elders expect to be referred to as “sir,” “ma’am,” or something equivalent.
    • Always make sure that they have food before you serve yourself, and that they have a place to sit before you or other younger people are seated.
    • Avoid paying attention to your phone or computer when you’re with an elder. Try to keep your focus on them and your quality time together.
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    Ask them about their life. Asking an elder about themselves is one of the best ways to show respect. It indicates that you are interested in who they are and that you respect the fact that they’ve lived a long life and have things to teach you.[8]
    • You can ask them to tell stories from their life. You can ask something like, “Do you remember anything from your time in the war?” or, “Where did your family move after they sold the business?”
    • If they're a member of your family, you can ask them about your family tree. This is a great way to learn about your own history. You can say something like, “Where did your mother’s family come from?” or “Did you know any of the people on Grandfather’s side?”
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    Accept generational differences. This may be the most difficult thing for people of all ages to do. However, it’s important to remember that cultural norms and expectations change across generations. Things that seem perfectly normal to you may seem unthinkable to someone two generations older than you and vice versa.[9]
    • If matters of politics or social norms become a wedge between you and your elder, try to let it go. You can say something like, “I understand where you’re coming from, but I think we might just disagree,” or, “We can do things that way here, if you want. But at home I’ll probably still do things the way that works for me.”
    • You can also ask the person to talk about where they’re coming from. Be sure to do so in a way that doesn’t convey judgement, though. For example, you can say something like, “Tell me more about why you don’t believe in divorce. That sounds really interesting to me,” or, “I’d love to know more about what you like about your church.”

Method 3
Honoring Heritage and Traditions

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    Ask about their heritage. Many elders today grew up in a time when cultural and religious traditions were a more central part of daily life. No matter their heritage, chances are that someone who's your elder has some connection to traditions that may be lost in a generation or two if they’re not passed down.[10]
    • Ask about traditional or culturally specific foods. Your elder may be able to teach you the most authentic way to prepare homemade tortillas, matzo balls, or tzatziki.
    • Your elder may have a different first language than you. Ask if they could teach you some important phrases. This is especially welcome when the elder speaks a language or dialect that’s declined in its usage, such as Native American languages.
    • If the elder is someone in your family, this is a great way to learn about your own history and heritage. If they're not of your heritage, it can be a great way to learn about another culture.
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    Invite them to engage in cultural or religious practices. Your elder may have grown up attending religious services regularly, or community events such as parades and dances. Let them know you’d like to attend something like that with them.[11]
    • Look for relevant events in your town. For example, your British grandmother may enjoy attending an evening of English country dancing.
    • Even if you don’t personally practice a religion, going with an elder to a religious event they connect to can be very meaningful for them.
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    Celebrate life’s milestones. In some cultures, reaching specific ages, such as 60 or 70, is celebrated with big parties. Make sure to mark milestones in the elder’s life. This honors the fact that good things are still happening in their life and they’re still active.[12]
    • You can celebrate an elder’s retirement or the anniversary of an accomplishment in their life.
    • An elder may not have the energy or will to gather many people for a party. Take on that responsibility yourself to show them how many people love and care about them.
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    Absorb and adapt traditional practices. You may not agree with everything your elder has to say. Still, there may be kernels of wisdom that you can adapt to your own life. Let them know how what they’ve taught you is useful to you.[13]
    • If there’s a specific proverb from your culture that’s resonant to you, share that with your elder. Let them know what it means to you.
    • Find a way to express your heritage that is authentic to you. For example, it may not make sense for you to go about your life in your culture’s traditional clothing, but you can wear some jewelry or other accessories that represent your culture.


  • Remember that older people were also young once. They’ve lived through many of the same experiences as you, as well as some very different ones.
  • If the elder has a hard time seeing or hearing, do what you can to accommodate that. Speak loudly and clearly. Help them with reading signs and important papers.
  • Elderly people often enjoy the same things as young people, just in a different way. They may love hearing their favorite music, eating delicious food, hearing some juicy gossip, or going for a walk in a beautiful place.


  • When an elder is in your life, keep an eye on their health and well-being. Check in on them regularly by phone if they live alone. Make sure they keep their doctors’ appointments and that they are getting what they need.

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