The Right Questions to Uncover Family History

The Right Questions to Uncover Family History

Many families often organize reunions during the summer months, and these present great and rare opportunities to talk with older family members and learn about their past.

Sharing stories

Many seniors have incredible but untold stories from their youth, but drawing out these stories can sometimes be tricky. These stories are full of rich family history and retelling them can bring families much closer.

A woman told us a story of when she asked her grandmother about the best Christmas gift she got when she was a child. The grandmother shared a story of five dolls that replicated a set of Canadian quintuplets. Over the next 20 minutes, her grandmother talked about how her mother spent a year saving (they didn’t have much money) to get the dolls for her five daughters and assembling an entire wardrobe for each. She even cut up a fur coat to make coats for the dolls. A little girl down the street got a grand piano for Christmas, but she often would spend her time away from home, playing with one of the dolls. After hearing this story, the adult granddaughter found the doll her grandmother had during her childhood on the Internet. They gave it to her for Christmas and it now continually sits on the table next to grandma’s bed.

This is just one example of a simple question that not only drew out an incredible story, but also created a new connection across generations. Uncovering these stories may not be easy, but it is often more than worth it.

One tactic before you sit down to talk with grandma or grandpa is to make a list of questions you want to ask ahead of time. However, don’t feel limited by this list. One question early on may lead you off in a different direction. Let the stories take you with their flow. If you don’t finish your list, it’s not a problem – you can ask them another time. Besides, finishing your list is not the point – hearing the stories is.

Determining the best questions to ask can be the most delicate part of the process. Don’t feel overwhelmed with all you want to learn. Instead, accept that whatever you do learn will be invaluable. Getting a little of something amazing is better than a large amount of mediocrity. The types of questions you ask should be on general topics, but target specifics. Asking what the best gift grandma ever got for Christmas is about a general topic (the holidays), but it aims for a very specific answer.

To help you brainstorm which questions are right for you, here is a list of helpful topics and sample queries:

  • Pets – What is a funny story about the dog you had when you were little?
  • Dating – Tell me about the worst date you ever went on.
  • Parents & grandparents – What did your parents do for a living? What was your grandpa’s favorite hobby?
  • Holiday celebrations (including birthdays) – Is there something your family did every Christmas when you were a child? What was the best birthday you ever had?
  • Lessons from family – What was a major turning point in your life as a child?
  • Vacations – Where did your family take a vacation when you were young?
  • Everyday life – What household chore did you have to do every day? What lessons did you take as a child – guitar, piano, or swimming?
  • Neighbors – Who was your favorite neighbor when you were a child?
  • Major life moments – Tell me about where you were when grandpa proposed to you.

If you need more ideas of questions to ask, Dr. Amy has a great set of Caring Cards with more samples. Learn about those here.

If the stories you hear have gaps, encourage other family members to weigh in and add their version of events – broadening the reach of this shared experience.

To help you record the stories so you aren’t taking notes during the conversation, feel free to use a camera. This also means you can save the video and show it to others later. If you still want to take notes, try using the buddy system with another family member. You can either share the responsibility or have one person be the note taker and the other asks the questions.

Once you assemble these stories, don’t just let them sit unused. Feel free to send copies to other members of the family, or like the adult granddaughter from earlier, seek out something that is an integral part of a story – like the doll – and reintroduce the joy your loved one first felt long ago. If you or another family member is a whiz in graphic design, turn your stories into a book/booklet that you can pass on to future generations.

This gathering of stories does not have to end when the family reunion ends. A caregiver providing your loved one with senior home care can continue to ask one question a week, then write down that story on a card and mail it off to the rest of the family.

Asking your older loved one’s about their history can often uncover remarkable information. There could be a toy on the Internet right now that could bring your grandmother childlike delight once again.

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