In October, we started a monthly Noodle Talk group at an assisted-living facility here in central New Jersey. Noodle Talk is a lightly structured discussion based on questions that explore the human condition as a rich mosaic of personal story. We developed it years ago and think it’s arguably the “best excuse to sit around and schmooze since grunting gave way to grammar.” That’s one of the reasons we were excited about bringing it to a group of seniors.

Some customers tell us that when first introducing Noodle Talk, they go through the questions beforehand to weed out the “more difficult ones.” I never do that, but as the first few questions were picked, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake: each was the serious kind that might easily send newcomers running. And if that wasn’t bad enough, an overly zealous prosecutor might interpret some as prima facie evidence of elder abuse (e.g., What feeling or thought would you like to accompany your final breath?).

In the end though, I didn’t need to call a lawyer. Nor was my inner cringing warranted. This group of senior citizens was absolutely fearless in responding to the questions. (Noodle Talk’s guidelines recommend reading the question silently to yourself and picking another if you don’t feel comfortable answering it. This way, no one knows what question you’re returning to the set unanswered.)

Often, their responses were deeply moving. One woman told about cheating on a class exam when she was 12 years old. Immediately afterwards, she was filled with remorse and confessed. Later, she became the teacher’s pet. Another woman spoke with pride about mastering the steep learning curve involved in taking over her husband’s business following his death.

Most touching for me though was the beautiful answer a 94 year-old man gave to the question about a final dying thought or feeling. He hoped he would recall how fortunate he was to have had the life he did — including his wonderful wife, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. (Last month, we learned that his marriage was still going strong after 74 years.)

Another man expressed a similar sentiment in response to another “difficult” question:

If, before being born, you were required to write a brief essay explaining your interest in taking human form, what would you have written?

He started out by saying he didn’t want to be a cockroach or a fly around a toilet. What he would look forward to “was smelling all the good things, having all the good thoughts, meeting the right girl, and having a great momma and poppa.”

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Question: Assuming it were possible, what substance do you think would make a terrific substitute for blood?

Answer: Martinis

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In leading Noodle Talk groups, I usually insist that we stick to authentic experience and not get lost in intellectual discussion or opinion. With a group that’s exclusively older seniors however, I let that restriction fall away. It adds a more familiar and comfortable element to the mix, and enriches the time we spend together. At our second meeting in November, the question, What is your favorite form of public transportation?, prompted some to share how hard it was to give up driving, and others to reflect on the trade-off between feeling safe and secure in the facility vs. having the world around them grow smaller and smaller. When have you felt most feminine? Masculine? became the catalyst for an extended conversation about sexual stereotyping.

Other conversational tangents: how to get inspired and motivated again, and how to get more out of daily programs.

A man, whose wife was living in a nearby nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients, talked about his year-long recovery from a stroke. “I never thought I’d end up here in assisted living,” he said. “It’s been tough. I’m trying to get better but I’m still not there.” Others responded by complimenting him on the progress he had made, and saying how much they admired and liked him. It was a genuine and spontaneous expression of support. Later, this same man, in answering another Noodle Talk question, named Woody Allen and Larry David as two artists he would commission to create a work based on his life.

Near the end, we shared stories about some really dumb things we had done as children. One woman admitted for the first time ever that she once threw something at dinner guests from behind a pantry door. She was returning to her room after being banished from the table for being fresh. When asked why this never came up at weekly confession in her youth, she laughed and said she didn’t think she had done anything wrong.

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