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It’s a Wonderful Life: Family Storytelling

Jeff Anderson
By Jeff AndersonDecember 27, 2012
Family-Storytelling-Christmas-tree

As we age, our memories seem not only more significant, but more vivid. For many wistful seniors, what happened 40 years ago may be more clear than the day before. As the mission statement to the Memoir Project says succinctly, “Countless unique stories are brimming in the hearts of and minds of our elderly people.”

When we encourage our parents to remember their past and talk about their memories and feelings, it validates the importance of their life’s experiences and strengthens family bonds. It reveals previously unknown facets of our parent’s character and past, helping us better understand who we are and where we came from.

Family-Storytelling-Christmas-treeOur older loved ones are also living, breathing history. The Memoir Project mission is worth quoting further: “Having lived through most of the decades of the twentieth century, seniors have seen and participated in sweeping changes in history, technology, culture, communities and the arts, and are in a unique and powerful position to offer their memories and interpretations of those changes.”

It’s wise to learn more about our loved ones and our past while we still have this precious opportunity.

Witnessing the Power of Memory

A clip from the recently released documentary about music therapy for elderly people, Alive Inside, powerfully demonstrates the potent and beneficial effects of engaging positively with the past. The clip shows an elderly man with advanced dementia who is seemingly only able to answer yes or no questions. But when someone puts headphones over his ears and plays music from his youth, he suddenly transforms, becoming happy and animated, even eloquent. Shortly after this experience he tells an interviewer, “It [music] gives me the feeling of love, of romance. I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing.”

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Even elderly people with advanced Alzheimer’s or dementia enjoy poring over old photos or listening to favorite songs. When you’re close to someone, you can tell when they’re happy by just the twinkling in their eye.

Ways to Connect with Older Parents

The projects or activities that your older loved ones will appreciate will depend, of course, on their unique personalities. But you can rarely go wrong with photos. Humans are strongly visually oriented creatures, so family photos and mementos will trigger sentimental feelings in just about anyone.

In her book for caregivers, A Place for Mom’s spokesperson, Joan Lunden, describes how much her mother with late-stage dementia, loved looking at the digital photo books:

I made her one this past year that I titled ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ The album began with the newspaper announcement of when my mom and dad were married, and was filled with photos and holiday cards that told our family story. The best part of making that album was seeing how the photos jogged my mom’s memory. As she flipped through pages of black and white images of herself as a young woman being courted by my dad, I saw a glimmer in her eye that I rarely see these days.”

Of course, if you’re crafty, old fashioned scrapbooks can work just as well. Lunden modestly added, “You could achieve the same thing with a scrapbook — I’m just not artsy enough to make one.”

Digital photo books are available through a number of vendors, including Michaels, Blurb.com, and MyPublisher.com to name just a few. There are also online services, such as Gen-Ark, that help catalogue family photos, documents, and memorabilia so you don’t have to worry about them one day disappearing into a digital abyss after your hard drive crashes or your favorite photo-sharing website files for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Digital archiving can also help you to keep these familial treasure troves accessible and organized.

Further guidance about personal archiving is available in an article from FamilySearch.org, a nonprofit founded by the Church of Latter Day Saints “dedicated to connecting families across generations.” FamilySearch.org also allows the public free access to a database of more than 2.5 billion documents in the public domain (for example, old census records) that can help them to trace their family histories. (Many genealogy websites charge for access to the same information.)

A DearPhotograph.com submission

Another interesting website with a whimsical but fascinating premise is DearPhotograph.Com. TIME Magazine described the concept recently: “[The] idea is taking a snapshot — usually one featuring one or more people and dating from the film-photography era — and holding it up against the original setting so that past and present blend into a new work of art.” Users submit their own examples of this concept in action, also including words, often poetic, about the personal significance of the image they have shared. The photo at right was paired with the message, “Time will tell many things and it’s crazy, almost scary, just how much I look like my mom as a child when I see her sitting on the steps in front of my great-grandmother’s home. That look on her face is the same one I often see looking back at me in the mirror.”

Family History: Asking Great Questions

Talk with your parents about the mementos and photos you’re sharing. Ask them what was happening in this scene. How did they feel at the time? How do they feel now, looking back? Your parents’ memories will be most strongly engaged when you make this a multisensory experience of looking, listening, and talking.

Talk doesn’t necessarily need to center around objects such as photos and keepsakes. Conversation itself can trigger long forgotten memories and emotions, and provide surprising insight into your parent’s personality. Take the time to ask questions that are out of the ordinary, questions you’d really like to hear your parent reflect on, and that you’re genuinely curious about. StoryCorps, a “national project to instruct and inspire people to record each others’ stories in sound,” has compiled a list of great questions that might serve as inspiration. We’ve also included a list of 25 interesting and quirky questions to ask your parents, which you can find at the end of this post.

Finally, if your parent is open to being recorded, consider making an audio recording or video based on these discussions. If you don’t feel comfortable with your technical skills, consider tools such as the iPad app, StoryPress, which guides you through the process of making an audio book with photos and other images. StoryCorps (a national project not related to StoryPress) also rents StoryKits to help families make high quality audio recordings and preserve them for posterity.

25 Interesting Questions to Ask Older Loved Ones

  1. Who in your life has shown you the most kindness?
  2. What was the hardest moment you had when I was growing up?
  3. Who was your first boyfriend or girlfriend?
  4. Who was the one that got away?
  5. How much did candy cost when you were a kid?
  6. What were your favorite foods?
  7. What was the first thing you learned to cook?
  8. Who was your best friend in grade school?
  9. Who was your favorite teacher, and why?
  10. What are your best memories of school? Worst memories?
  11. Was there ever a time in school or at home where you got into really big trouble?
  12. What was your favorite song in high school?  Do you have a favorite song today?
  13. What was your first car?
  14. What was the first movie you saw? What was your favorite movie? Did you have a favorite movie star?
  15. Did you have a favorite pet growing up?
  16. Where is your mom’s family from? Where is your dad’s family from?  Where are your grandparents from?
  17. Who were your favorite relatives?
  18. What family traditions do you hope that we will carry on?
  19. What have you done that makes you the proudest?
  20. What were the biggest milestones in your life?
  21. What is your biggest regret?
  22. What are you dreams for your descendants?
  23. If you could do anything now, what would you do? Why?
  24. If you won the lottery, what would you do?

Have a happy and safe new year.

What methods have you used to help your older loved one’s remember their past? Is there such thing as too much nostalgia? What are your most cherished memories? We welcome your comments below.

Jeff Anderson
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Jeff Anderson

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