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Tips for a Successful Family Reunion

Virginia Morey
By Virginia MoreyAugust 3, 2017

Large or small, frequent or rare, family reunions can usually be counted on to include: attendees of all ages; catching up on important life events; gossiping; loads of laughter; a few tears; and copious amounts of food.

Fueled by anecdotes and photo albums, these gatherings also provide a golden opportunity to have a successful family reunion and talk to older loved ones about the past to preserve family history for generations to come. Even for seniors suffering memory loss, stories from yesteryear may remain more clear and vivid in their minds than what happened yesterday. Great-grandma may not know who’s president, but she can identify that dapper fellow in saddle shoes leaning up against a Studebaker in a faded black-and-white photo as Charlie Smith, second-cousin Millie’s high-school boyfriend who lived in the blue house on the street behind the sawmill next to the Jacksons.

A Successful Family Reunion: Where to Start?

Joan Lunden, author, journalist and APFM spokesperson, is an expert on eldercare. In “How to Interview an Aging Loved One,” she has compiled an inspired — and inspiring — list of questions that range from “nice to know” to “need to know.”

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“Make appointments and write an interview to keep you on track for what you really want to know,” advises Lunden. “Always engage aging parents with the intent of wanting to be a willing, active partner in making their future life chapters as interesting and as connected as possible. Always be very aware that you’re not coming off as saying ‘well I’m going to be responsible for you, so give me all the info to make my life easier later.’ Remember to be sensitive and don’t force them to ponder their mortality in a scary way.”

There’s no time like the present to start asking the questions — including the tough ones — that will enrich your relationships with older relatives. They’re likely the first ones to remind you that they won’t be around forever.

“Go Talk to Your Grandma!”

Family reunions provide one of the best — and sometimes only — opportunities for young and old to interact in meaningful ways. It isn’t unusual for young people to feel wary around seniors whom they don’t know well, particularly those who are very advanced in years or in failing health, so talk to children ahead of time about how to show compassion and patience. Notes Lunden:

“If there is a memory loss situation, explaining to your child what they can expect and what types of topics and questions are engaging for that senior is helpful. I always recommend asking seniors about their childhood, their early career or parenthood, or how things used to be. It is a general good rule of thumb that they will be comfortable talking about…their past, the part of their lives when they felt vibrant and the most themselves.”

Here are a few ideas about how to get interaction started and how to spark interest in learning more about “where they came from:”

  1. At the start of the reunion, pair up as many “under 18s” and “over 60s” as possible, either randomly or with specific common interests in mind. For inspiration, provide a list of questions that each young person can ask their senior interviewee. Record responses on a smartphone to share later as an audio file or transcription.
  2. Before the reunion, find out if school-age children can earn extra credit by interviewing a grandparent and writing about it for class.
  3. Games can be fun for all ages. Notes Lunden, “Whether it’s Scattergories or even all working on a puzzle together, it gets people engaged and talking, without their electronics in front of their faces! Also athletic games can bring a family together. It’s always fun to root for your team or for family members… and it’s something the whole family can rally around and share in.”
  4. If that goes well, encourage them to take their results to the national level. The Legacy Project’s annual “Listen to a Life Story Contest” begins every September, on National Grandparents Day. Young people between 8-18 are invited to interview a grandparent or grandfriend (age 50 and up) and submit a 300-word essay about what they learned. Each story is read, judged and may be awarded one of several prizes.
  5. Post a family tree on a wall in a central location and send younger kids off with an instant camera to make sure there are photos to go with the names of everyone in attendance.

Plan Ahead — Far, Far Ahead

Reunions can last for a day, a long weekend, or, depending upon schedules and resources, an entire week or more. While it’s not impossible for great gatherings to happen on the spur of the moment, it doesn’t hurt to begin planning at least a year in advance.

At the outset, define an organizational committee and determine the scope of the reunion. Will it be a smaller affair consisting only of immediate family, or will every member of the family tree be invited? If it’s to be a more extensive gathering, consider sending a questionnaire via Facebook or email to potential attendees to help zero in on time of year, geographical location, budget, and venue type.

Look for sites that ensure accessibility, comfort and safety for family members with mobility issues and that offer a room or quiet area conducive to interviews or intimate conversations. Keep in mind that seniors may tire earlier than younger generations and require periods of rest.

You should also consider setting up a dedicated email address — where reunion correspondence and research inquiries can be compiled — that can be used by designated event planners. If this is your family’s first big reunion, a new blog or web page can serve as a virtual “command center” for corralling information and can easily do double-duty as a family-wide newsletter and place to share photos, videos and stories before or after the big event.

Some Tools for Remembrance — A Checklist

Here are a few ideas for bring-along items that can help enrich and enliven reunions for attendees of all ages:

  • Ephemera: Memories are often readily triggered by documents, photo albums (either those of the physical “scrapbook” style or digital photo albums that can be viewed on a laptop, tablet or phone) and yearbooks. Try to sort and organize loose photos beforehand, if possible. Anyone with a smartphone can choose from numerous free or inexpensive scanner and photo apps that make it easy to transform originals into easily shared and stored digital formats. An inexpensive slide and negative scanner can replicate photos that don’t exist in any other medium.
  • Music: Consider including a Bluetooth-enabled speaker and playlists culled from your senior family members’ favorite musical eras loaded onto a smartphone or tablet. Music taps into a different part of the brain than language, so playing songs from the past can elicit happy memories and reminiscences from those who have difficulty engaging in even basic conversation.
  • Printer: A Bluetooth-equipped printer and supply of photo paper will enable guests to print pictures directly from a range of electronic devices for instant distribution or use.
  • Projector (slide, movie or video/DVD) and screen: A lot of old family photos and videos exist only in slide or film format. If there’s a dark-enough area available, set up chairs and a slide or movie projector to show films and still images to inspire stories and conversations.
  • Sound system with microphone: The chosen venue may provide an integrated sound system, but if not, a simple speaker and microphone setup can help with general announcements and ensure the hard-of-hearing don’t miss out.
  • Video camera and tripod: “Setting up a camera to record a conversation is a great way to archive it,” says Lunden. “You can go back and watch for important family history information, or simply for the nostalgia of seeing your loved one after they are gone.” A smartphone can work too, provided the phone has ample memory.

Resources for a Family Reunion

Since 2003, StoryCorps has provided a public platform for stories to be shared and preserved. The StoryCorps website offers a guide about how to interview a friend or loved one, and the free StoryCorps app makes it easy to record a conversation with anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Family Tree Magazine offers a free online e-book, Step-By-Step Family Reunion Planning, which provides in-depth advice for staging a major reunion event as well as plenty of useful advice for smaller gatherings.

Creating a family tree is a great way to preserve family history. Sites such as ancestry.com and familysearch.org provide a wealth of valuable resources. There are also numerous genealogy computer programs available.

Have you attended multi-generational family reunions that were particularly successful? Have you experienced reunion pitfalls that you might help others avoid? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

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Virginia Morey
Virginia Morey
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