Care and Feeding

How Can I Connect With My New —Much Older—Roommate?

An elderly woman and a 20-something woman smiling and talking.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a question not about parenting, but about the interaction of different generations. I’m a young millennial woman moving in with a new, much older roommate next month. “LeAnne” is in her 90s and has been a pillar of the local community since before most of the community was here. She grew up Black in the Great Depression, worked through WWII, witnessed the Civil Rights Movement and devoted herself to its continuation by working in education and community housing programs for decades. I admire her immensely.

But I don’t really know how to relate to her. My own family has been greatly affected by generational trauma, and I’ve been estranged from the older generation within it since I was a teenager. I have little experience interacting with seniors, aside from the volunteer work I’ve done in senior living facilities. It bothered me to see the residents in those places spoken down to and infantilized. I’ve been troubled to see neighbors treating LeAnne the same way, cutting her off mid-conversation, speaking to her in simplified, affected ways, and avoiding substantial topics altogether, even when they have real effect on her life. I want to be the best roommate and friend to LeAnne that I can. I don’t mind if she rambles and tells me the same stories over and over. I’m happy to keep her company and help around the house. But the generational divide leaves us with few common interests or experiences. How can I offer LeAnne the love and respect she is due, and not fall into the habit of dismissing or diminishing her?

—Across the Great Divide

Dear AtGD,

You haven’t mentioned why you and LeAnne have decided to live together—it’s an unusual arrangement for sure, if you’re not already close—but your mentioning being “happy to keep her company” and help out around the house suggests that you are moving in to the place where she already lives, at least in part to be of use to her. And your determination to offer her love and respect implies more than a simple split-the-rent roommate deal.

As an older person who has many friends who are decades younger, I can attest to the benefits, on both sides, of intergenerational friendship. My friend Harrison, who just turned 26, and I—at 67—have long, unfailingly interesting conversations over dinner about musical theater and studying ballet, among other things we’ve learned we have in common; my friend Nick (36) and I play board games, watch romcoms, and talk ourselves hoarse about all manner of things. Come to think of it, when I was in my 30s, I had a dear friend I saw regularly who was a good three decades older. Not a gap as large as the one between you and LeAnne, but a considerable one nevertheless. The point is: a generational divide need not be a barrier to true friendship.

I think the reason it seems to many people that it is, though, is that they assume that young people and old people have “few interests or experiences” in common. But interests are not necessarily age-specific. You don’t need “experience interacting with seniors” to be a good friend to LeAnne. “Seniors” are just people who’ve been on earth longer than you have. They don’t stop being who they are once they hit a certain age (nor will you, when you get older). My own mother is 89 and we continue to talk about books and movies. (The morning after the Academy Awards, we talked, like everyone else, about Will Smith and Chris Rock.)

Instead of just admiring LeAnne, have real conversations with her. Find out what interests her—don’t assume there’s some monolithic category of “old people’s interests.” Talk to her about what interests you, too. She might surprise you. In other words: talk to her the way you would talk to anyone. You don’t need to be careful around your new roommate in order to be respectful and loving. I guarantee that she will appreciate not being seen as a relic, as someone to be carefully (even affectionately) tolerated, or as someone completely different from you simply by virtue of her age. Age comes for us all; youth is but a temporary condition. Who we are is another matter.

—Michelle