Capturing Your Family’s Past For The Future

“Every family has a story, and giving that story to your family is an extraordinary gift,” says journalist Steven V. Roberts. Roberts, who penned his own family’s history in the book My Fathers’ Houses, says, “Your family doesn’t have to be extraordinary to warrant its own history. It will be special to your family, and they’ll be very grateful to have their lives recorded for this generation and for generations from now.”

Aging parents and grandparents are an amazing storehouse of information that just needs to be mined. If the prospect seems overwhelming, Roberts says that with a little preparation, the task can be whittled down to size. He offers these tips to help you get started:

Record interviews on audio tape and video. Don’t show up at Uncle Joe’s with a notepad and pen and start asking questions, Roberts warns. “You may want to take some notes, but record the conversation.”

Do some homework first by gathering family documents, diaries or records. There are lots of data available, especially online. Roberts suggests checking out U.S. Census documents, ship registries, and the Old Man’s Registry (men age 40 to 60 who were obligated to register for the draft during World War II). Links to all these listings can be found at

Prepare questions before your visit. The more specific the question, the better the response. For example, instead of “tell me about your life,” try “tell me what a typical day was like when you were working at the steel mill.”

Bring a photograph or document with you. “Photographs can really help trigger memories,” Roberts says. “Ask your family member to tell you who the people are and what was happening when the photo was taken.” One story will lead to another.

Be a cheerleader. Older people may not think their lives are important, so cheerleading is a big part of helping you get the story.

Ask questions in a context that is familiar. For example, Aunt Lily may not feel confident talking about world events or details of her life. But if she bakes a mean coffee cake, ask her where the recipe came from and who taught her to cook. This will raise her comfort level and she’ll feel more confident about answering your questions.

Make an appointment for a specific time and give your family member time to think about the past before you arrive. Also, make sure the interview takes place where you and your relative will feel comfortable and relaxed.

And Roberts advises, “Don’t limit yourself to one interview. Your relatives will no doubt remember details after you’ve left or discover some lost letters. So always go back to ask more. Then share the video or audio tapes with the whole family circle!”

Brought to you by Genesis HealthCare. Specializing in Alzheimer’s and dementia care for more than 25 years. Contact Genesis at or 866-745-CARE.

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