A Message from the Great Beyond….

A gentleman wrote in to Amy today to ask a question on behalf of himself and his 85-year-old mother. They were finding that many of the older widows they knew were not re-recording the outgoing message on their answering machines, but rather leaving their husbands’ voice as the greeting. The writer found this “disconcerting” and wondered, “Does hearing the voice when screening calls offer some form of solace?”

I highly doubt it’s anywhere near that complicated. My first thought, keeping my own grandma–and her rather flustered outgoing answering machine message–in mind, was that these women simply couldn’t figure out how to re-record the message. Amy suggested the same:

I can think of two explanations — either hearing their husband’s voice from time to time brings solace, or they can’t quite figure out how to rerecord an outgoing message (I would join them in this frustration).

To me, it also seems likely that the ladies forget that they “need” to change the message (if they do in fact want to.) It may be almost as much a surprise to them to hear their husband’s voice on the machine each time it plays as to anyone else. Likely they make a mental note to change it, or ask someone to help them change it, but in the long run, it’s not so important, or it’s not part of the daily routine, and it gets dropped, only to resurface the next time it happens.

I’m not trying to be age-ist, or assume that every woman in her eighties is in her dotage, as that’s certainly not the case. But, like I said, I have a grandma, and that grandma has an answering machine….I’m speaking from a certain amount of personal experience.

Another odd twist in the letter….I’m not really sure that many older ladies “screen” their calls. Again, maybe I’m just narrowing my perspective to my own grandparent experiences, and maybe it would be a good idea if they DID screen more often, rather than rushing to pick up the phone, or getting caught by solicitors or even scam artists. But from what I’ve seen of this generation, they are unlikely to use the machine to distance themselves from interaction with others. To me it seems sort of suspicious to assume that they’re sitting there screening…but maybe I associate a stigma with call screening that no longer exists.

The original writer wrote in mainly because he and his 85-year-old mother found the situation “disconcerting.” My guess is that when she calls her friends or family and gets a voice from beyond, she is either upset by it, or confused and can’t remember a) that the person has died or b) the opposite–how they could possibly be speaking to her.

This is just sucky all around….it’s very hard to watch your parents or grandparents lose their confidence and their sense of security and awareness about their environment. This sort of thing really could throw a person, and either be quite upsetting, or in the passing of time and activity, get jumbled to the extent that she believes she really did speak with the person who owns the voice. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there’s much to do about it. If the other ladies are close friends or relatives (or at least know the son), he might ask them if they would like or need some help re-recording their message to “keep current.” They might be pleased and grateful, they might wonder why he’s asking, or they might not want to change it at all, and that’s all fine.

More internally, if it is his mother who is having trouble calling her friends and getting the voice of a dead husband, perhaps he could create a list and post it near her emergency numbers, to remind her that Fred’s voice is still on Ethel’s answering machine message, and not to be alarmed. It sounds odd, and might look odd to others (would those numbers hang neatly inside a kitchen cabinet door?) but might be helpful, and prevent one more episode of disconcertedness in the march towards aging (and death…um, sorry, this is morbid for a Friday morning) that disconcerts us all.


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