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Getting Older Relatives to Share their Stories Benefits Everyone

Joe Millie

Joe Millie

Those of us who have lost parents and grandparents know the feeling – wishing you had spent more time learning about your family’s history, your elders’ stories of great joy and sadness, their triumphs and regrets. Holiday visits are a great time to begin the process of hearing and preserving your aging loved ones’ life stories.

Getting seniors to tell their stories can be a wonderful experience for them and for family members who hear the stories. Some researchers have found that talking about their lives can improve seniors’ self-esteem, reduce stress, and contribute to increased feelings of being in control of their lives.

Experts advise that it’s never too early or too late to begin. A simple question like, “What was Christmas (or Hanukkah or any other meaningful holiday) like when you were a little girl?” can unlock memories your mother or grandmother may not have thought about for years. If you’re worried about keeping the conversation going, come up with a list of questions before you visit.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • What did you do for fun when you were in grade school? How about in high school?
  • Who were your favorite singers or bands?
  • What were your favorite subjects in school?
  • Did you have pets when you were growing up?
  • Did you play sports? Musical instruments? Were you in scouting or other activities?
  • Tell me about your brothers and sisters? What were family dinners like when you were a kid?
  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • What did you do on dates when you were young?
  • How did you meet grandma/grandpa? When did you know that you were in love?
  • What do you remember about World War II (or Korea, or Vietnam?)
  • What’s the hardest thing you ever did?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What’s your biggest regret?
  • What do you wish someone had told you when you were my age?

However, you may be surprised at how easy the conversation will become once your loved one gets going – one story will lead to another.

That brings up an important point – you should probably bring a video camera or use your cell phone to record your session. You’ll probably cherish the video once your loved one isn’t around any longer. And if you have children, you should include them in your sessions. One woman found that her father’s stories about fighting in World War II made history come alive for her teenage son and daughter. Her children were fascinated, she said, adding that it will probably take them a few years to realize what a great gift her father had given them.

Here are a few suggestions for getting great oral histories:

  • Remember that the opportunity to spend time with your loved one is as important as the information you’re gathering. Don’t be concerned if the conversation goes into areas you didn’t expect.
  • Be flexible. If your loved one doesn’t have much to say about one of your questions, move on.
  • If it’s difficult to get the conversation started, think about doing something while you’re talking – take a walk, or listen to some music.
  • Bring old photos when you interview your family member. These can bring up stories your loved one hasn’t thought about for years.

Talking with aging loved ones can be a wonderful experience for everyone involved. Don’t wait – get started now. Chances are, you’ll always be glad that you did.