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How to Create an Oral Family History with Grandparents

Most people who have lost a parent or grandparent will wistfully wish they could spend more time with their loved one, talking and hearing their stories and memories. If you are providing care in North Boston for an aging parent or grandparent, taking time to ask questions and record an oral family history—even an informal one—will create a treasured memory for the future.

In the process, you'll also create a meaningful connection with your loved one. They will feel valued and cared for through your curiosity and interest in their life. At Senior Helpers in North Boston, we specialize in supporting seniors and their families with compassionate in-home care. Creating an oral family history is a wonderful opportunity to bring generations together. We'd like to offer our suggestions for creating this lasting memory for your family.

Encourage Young Family Members to Interact with Aging Relatives

Young family members can get involved by interviewing their older relatives. Having a script of questions (not to mention a recorder or camera) can get them past feeling shy or awkward about what to say.

Even during social distancing, this can be a great project to do via Skype, FaceTime, or other meeting and recording apps. If you don't want to make a recording, you can still enjoy these questions as conversation starters.

Be sure to save the best stories for future distraction when your loved one is feeling bored or anxious. You'll be able to say, "Tell me again about the time..."

What Is an Oral Family History?

An oral family history is not the facts (such as the births, marriages and deaths) but the stories behind those events. In terms of good interview questions, an oral history is more about why and how, rather than what, where and when. Every family has good stories to tell, and the passing of these stories from one generation to the next bonds families together.

Don't skip tough questions if your loved one is willing to answer them. Elderly folks have lived through and learned from their long life experience. Their perspective on getting through rough times is invaluable to younger generations who have most of their life challenges still ahead. When facing tough times, it's empowering to know your family history is one of strength and resilience.

How to Prepare for Your Grandparent Interview

Start by writing down everything you already know. Make a basic timeline so you have a visual. Include birthdays and marriages, where they worked, places they lived, or big events that you know happened. Ask other family members about special memories or stories to include. Make a note of family members, friends, or hobbies you want to know more about. You can use these to create a list of specific questions.

Consider how you will record your interview. Plenty of digital recording and editing possibilities are available via phone, tablet, or computer. Whatever you choose, practice ahead so you won't have technical distractions. Be sure you have good sound so the person can talk in a normal, conversational tone. You can also take notes by hand and transcribe them later if you want to keep it simple.

Be Flexible

Your interviewee may not be up for performing, even if they love the idea and are flattered by your attention. You can break your time into short segments if needed.

It may help type your questions and let the person see them in advance. If your interviewee has memory difficulties, bring photos, family objects, or news articles to help spur memories.

Below are questions to ask. You probably can add more questions of your own.

When you interview, ask your question and then stay quiet. The best stories will come if you wait, listen, and give time to respond. Instead of moving to the next question too soon, try smiling or nodding. Seeing your interest, they might keep talking.

Don't worry too much about details. You can probably verify those elsewhere. Thoughts and feelings, more than facts, will reveal your loved one's unique character, personality and spirit—that's what you want to capture.

If the conversation takes a detour, let it. You might get an even better story than the one you were expecting.

Questions to Ask Your Grandparent about Family History

  • Childhood: What was your life like when you were a child? What did you do for fun? What did you hate doing? Did you ever do something your parents didn't know about?

  • School: What was school like for you? Did you like it? What was your favorite subject?

  • Work: What was your first job? What was that like? What other jobs did you do? As a kid, was that the job you wanted to do when you grew up?

  • Marriage: How did you meet Grandma/Grandpa? Why did you marry him/her? What do you remember about when you first met? Tell me about a hard time you went through together.

  • Family: What was Mom/Dad like growing up? What was your favorite family activity? Tell me a funny story about my mom/dad. What were your parents like?

  • Social/Historical Events: Ask what they remember about historical events that happened during their life, as well as social or political issues.

  • Challenges: What was the hardest thing you ever went through? What helped you get through that? Was there anything you felt you failed at? What did you do about it?

  • Favorites: What makes you happy? Do you have a favorite song or story? Can you sing/tell it to me? What was your favorite hobby or activity? Tell me about that.

  • Self-reflection: What are you most proud of? How would you like to be remembered? What would you tell younger people, like me, is the most important thing in life? If you were to start over, what would you would change?

  • Closing: What else do you want me to know about you?

Use an Oral Family History to Connect with Your Elderly Loved Ones

If you are caring for an elderly parent or grandparent, asking about their childhood and life experience is a great way to connect, show how much you care about them, and value their life. Recording it will create a family treasure of memories.

If you need help or information about caring for your elderly loved one at home in North Boston, contact Senior Helpers. We offer customized, affordable, and compassionate care for seniors in the North Shore, Merrimack Valley, Burlington, Lexington, Danvers, and Cape Ann. Whether your loved one needs a caring and experienced companion or more specialized care for chronic conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, we'd love to help.