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    « How to Choose an Editor for Your Memoir or Family History | Main | Books - The Best Way to Preserve Your Personal History »

    Helping Seniors Recall Stories for a Memoir or Family History

    One of the most common frustrations we hear about from people working on memories or family histories is their inability to get aging relatives to participate in the project by telling their stories.

    A radio personality in our town is typical. “I’ve been trying to get my mother to tell her stories for years. I asked her to write some down. I even got her a digital recorder and asked her to record them. But she just won’t do it.” His experience is fairly common.

    If you are trying to get a senior member of your family to tell his or her stories we advise you to make it a social event. Sit down with your relative and explain what you are doing. Communalization is a term that is usually associated with recovering from trauma which is also applicable to seniors who grow increasingly isolated as they grow older. They want to share stories with other people. They want a social experience.

    Help your relative get started. You know many of their stories. Begin with a prompt like, “Tell the one about ­­­­­___________when ______________." Or begin telling the story yourself. Your relative will jump in and take over the narration. Another memory trigger is to show your relative a photograph and ask them to tell you about it. Any technique that gets your relative started talking is all it takes.

    If you want to record the conversation, great! But make the technical aspects of doing so unobtrusive. A small digital recorder is all you need. Handle the operation of the recorder yourself.  Seniors are sometimes uncomfortable with technology. Don’t let it derail the conversation.

    Don’t plan on gathering all the stories you hope to hear in a single visit. Seniors get tired. Several short visits will allow them to stay focused. The interval between sessions will also allow them to recall stories they might otherwise never have told. You may find that your relative gets grows more enthusiastic about telling stories as they get used to the process.

    You may find that in addition to gathering stories both you and your relative will have a wonderful time together sharing them.

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    Reader Comments (2)

    This is great advice! I'd like to add, get two of them together.

    I told an aunt I wanted some of her stories of my parents. The time she offered me was while she was getting her hair cut by the woman who also cut my mom's hair. They were in a relaxed setting, doing something that is conducive to women chatting.

    I sat in the corner of the basement with a note pad, jotting little bits. It was after I thanked them and left that I wrote like a mad woman. So many little things they brushed over but - wow! I learned more than details! I was inspired by the flavors of their memories, what they laughed about but didn't elaborate. I watched them share looks, chuckle and shrug over stuff that was like a lightning bolt of revelation to me.

    The two of them were thrilled to flesh out stories I sort of thought I knew, and the layers they added really created a richer dynamic.

    Apr 6, 2010 at 7:38PM | Unregistered Commenterterri

    Thanks for the comment! You are absolutely right. Getting seniors together reminiscing is a great way to hear family stories. Just getting out of the way and letting them talk can be wonderful. That's one of the reasons that family reunions are great for a person collecting stories.

    Apr 7, 2010 at 12:12AM | Unregistered Commenteradmin

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