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Learn more about your unique family history by talking with elderly relatives
Talking to an older relative about your family history can be exceptionally rewarding for both of you.
Recording a conversation with a relative lets you document a treasured moment together, capture unique aspects of their personality and create a family history resource that you can go back to time and again.
There’s also strong evidence that exercising a person’s mind using memory recall can delay the decline of thinking skills, and postpones the onset of symptoms in people with dementia. In addition, whilst people with dementia often struggle with storing and retrieving recent information, memories from long ago are often left intact and easily accessible, meaning that they find talking about the past much easier than the present.
How to record a conversation with an elderly relative:
Always speak to your relative beforehand about whether they’re comfortable being recorded, and if so how they would prefer for it to be documented. Here are the three main options:
- Note-taking: Taking notes is the least obtrusive method of recording a conversation. You can let your loved-one decide which statements are recorded, or choose to only jot down the statements you think are relevant. However, it might not become a treasured memento in the same way, and the act of writing can detract from the conversation itself.
- Audio recording: Recording audio lets you capture more than just words. This method documents turns of phrase and vocal intonation that add a more human element. It also ensures your record is completely accurate, and – once you’ve set up your dictaphone or audio recording device – you can just focus on the conversation. Some people might find this method intrusive though, so be sure to check beforehand.
- Video recording: In our new digital age, there are plenty of ways to record a video of your loved one. By using video, you can also document the gestures and facial expressions that characterise statements and make the person who they are. However, there is still something of a generational divide with video, so make sure that they’re comfortable being filmed.
What questions should I ask my relative?
There’s no set formula for collating a list of questions. Think about what you already know about your family history, where the blind-spots are and family-related subjects that the person may have a different opinion on from others.
Sometimes using a memory prompt like a photograph album or a memorabilia book about a particular era or region can help trigger memories and stories from the past.
Often, the most rewarding questions will come up once the conversation starts flowing. But, to get things started, you can try some of these tried and tested queries:
- What was it like growing up in your household?
- If you had to describe each of your parents in just three words, what would they be?
- What are your memories of school?
- What were your grandparents like?
- As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
- Which of your jobs was your favourite, and why?
- Where did you meet your partner, and what was it about them attracted you?
- What did you learn from your parents about marriage and bringing up kids?
- Which family holiday was your favourite and why?
- Can you tell me about the relatives I never got a chance to meet?
- What has been the most momentous event you’ve ever lived through?
- If there was one thing you’ve learnt that you would want to explain to your childhood self, what would it be?
- What’s been your greatest achievement in life?