If you have elderly relatives, you have a window with a view onto history — the opportunity to learn firsthand details of life in a "gone-by" era. On a personal level, they are your key to solving the mystery of who you were named after, a chance to match personalities with those ornate, but fading signatures in the family Bible.
Consider the changes our world has witnessed in the past 100 years — in technology, arts & entertainment, religion, cultural values and family relationships. Our aging and elderly loved ones have experienced it all: from the Great Depression to world wars and the evolution of modern media. Our parents have experienced life in the 20th and 21st centuries and grew up with people who lived and thrived in the 19th. "Picking the brains" of older generations can yield incalculable insights into generational patterns; what makes us who we are today in the present time.
Yet, too often, we let time slip away, squandering the valuable resource of our elders' memories until it's too late and the past is lost to us forever.
Asking Good Questions
If you have a favorite elderly relative, don't wait. Arrange a specific time to sit down for a one-on-one. Choose a time when your loved one is rested and distractions are at a minimum. Have a list of questions ready, along with family photos, letters and other visual cues. Be sure your recording device is properly set up so that both questions and answers are picked up on the microphone. Some good "start-up" questions are:
- Who were you named after?
- What have been some of your nicknames — and how did you get them?
- What do you remember of your grandparents? Great-grandparents?
- What do you consider the most important invention of your lifetime? Why?
- What did you eat as a child? How was food prepared?
- What kind of transportation did you use?
- Did you have any pets? If so, what were they and what were their names?
- What was your favorite toy?
- How did your family celebrate Christmas and other holidays?
- What was your favorite subject in school?
- What was church like when you were young? Did you have a favorite Bible story as a child?
- What major world events happened when you were young? How did you hear about them? How did people around you react?
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
- How did you meet your spouse?
- What's the hardest choice you ever had to make?
- What was the happiest time in your life?
- What was the saddest time?
- What's the most important life lesson you've learned?
More Helpful Tips
One of the first things a news reporter is taught is to ask "who-what-when-where-why" questions. The same goes for those who want to glean detailed information about family history.
When trying to determine exact dates of births, deaths and other important events, try to tie in related memories — a world event, catastrophes, a particular job or season. Try to corroborate facts by talking to other relatives who recall the same time period.
Of all the senses, the sense of smell is considered the most effective in eliciting memory. For the elderly person who needs coaching to remember, bring items like a favorite old perfume, some fresh-baked cookies, pine needles, a Big Chief writing tablet (the smell of newsprint), vanilla or sweet-smelling soap. Invite the subject of your interview to smell the items, then ask, "What does this smell remind you of?"
Good questions are open-ended and allow for changes in direction. Keep yes/no questions to a minimum. You'll find the more questions you ask, the more latent memories will rise to the surface — don't be surprised if your loved one starts to recall the smallest details: the smell of gingerbread baking, the hankie Grandma always had tucked in her sleeve, the glass candy dish that sat on mantle. If so, go with it! As family "sleuth," be open to where the interview takes you. It's the day-to-day intimate details that make history come alive for younger generations – and create a bridge of common experience.
Finally, don't put too much emphasis on dates. Though it's nice to know your Grandfather arrived at Ellis Island on a particular date, it's much more interesting to know the personal facts that don't make it into history books: what people felt, life lessons they've learned, what caused them pain, what gave them joy. In the quest for answers about a family heritage, the "whens" are not nearly as fascinating as the "whys" and "hows."