Consider the oldest living member of your family, perhaps your parent or grandparent. What year were they born? What news stories did they live through? What historical events do they remember vividly that your own children now learn about from history books?
Or, perhaps even more important, what key family events does your relative remember that no one else does? What stories can only they tell? What family legends do they carry?
Those types of memories – that living perspective on both global and personal events – are the reason why life story exercises are valuable.
Benefits of Life Story Exercises
For you and your family, listening to and preserving an elderly relative’s stories can give you a personal perspective on history. You can record family memories that might otherwise be lost, and you can learn new insights about your family. No matter what method you use, a record of your relative’s life history can become a priceless family heirloom that future generations will cherish.
But life story exercises are also beneficial for the seniors who share them. For an older person, telling their memories and stories can help preserve their memory and cognitive function, enabling them to relive important events and practice cognitive connections. Sharing their stories with you and younger members of your family also helps strengthen intergenerational relationships, and it helps seniors feel how valued and important they are to the entire family.
Approaches to Life Story Exercises
Partaking in ‘life story’ exercises with a senior doesn’t need to be a difficult or time-consuming process. Even though it’s called a life story, it doesn’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) include their entire life. There are many ways you can create keepsakes of memories that are worth preserving, without trying to help your relative write an entire life memoir. The only limit to the methods you use is your imagination, but here are some ideas to get you started.
One of the most popular ways to do life story exercises is to record them as a video, and there are many reasons why this is the best option for many families. This enables the exercise to be a conversation between you and the person whose memories you’re preserving, so it’s relational and enjoyable for both of you. Speaking on camera is an easily manageable task for most seniors, while writing or typing could be more difficult. This also allows you to capture not just the story itself but your loved one’s voice, face, and expressions while they tell it.
Here are some tips to make a good life story video:
- Keep it short – no more than an hour long – to avoid over-tiring your storyteller. If you want more stories, make more videos on another day.
- Pay attention to lighting. Your storyteller’s face should be well-lit, but the light shouldn’t shine in their eyes and make them squint. Consider making your video outdoors in the morning or evening when the sun is lower – this reduces shadows and provides the best lighting for cameras. If you need to be indoors, choose a place with good overall lighting like bright overhead lights.
- Reduce distractions and background noise. The video will be hard to watch if your storyteller’s voice is unclear or interrupted by other sounds. If you can, consider getting a small external microphone that you can clip onto your storyteller’s clothes so it will capture their voice well.
For seniors who enjoy the written word, typing or handwriting stories is another way to preserve them. Although a written account lacks the expressions and human interactions of a video, it can be easier to preserve and share with other family members, especially relatives who are less tech-savvy. A handwritten story can be framed or placed in a scrapbook, and a virtual document can be sent out to the entire family email list for everyone to enjoy.
If you opt for a written version, be mindful of the senior’s physical abilities. Writing for long periods of time can strain both hands and eyes, so keep writing sessions short. Make sure the senior has a comfortable writing space, with good lighting and a firm writing surface at the appropriate height.
Interview Ideas for Life Stories
Once you’ve decided what medium to use for life stories, it’s time to get started — but how? Recording memories from the long life of an elderly loved one could sound like a daunting task. Rather than presenting a senior with a blank page or a general topic, use interview techniques to elicit stories that are vivid, specific, and of course memorable.
First, use open-ended questions. If a question can be answered with a yes/no or a few words, then it’s less likely to elicit a good story. Avoid questions like ‘what’s your favorite’ or ‘what do you think’ (unless you use them as the first part of a multi-part question), and instead ask questions starting with ‘tell me about’, ‘when did you’, or ‘why’.
Next, keep the interview conversational. This means asking follow-up questions when something sounds interesting. If you plan questions in advance, you might be tempted to move on to the next question in your list, but don’t do that while parts of the story you’re hearing are still untold. If your relative mentions something in passing that sounds interesting, ask about it. Remember, your goal is to uncover interesting stories and memories, so as you’re listening, follow the emotion. If they mention something that moved them or was important to them in some way, ask more questions about it — there’s likely a great story there.
To help narrow down the stories and give the exercise some structure, consider using a theme. For example, you could do one life story session centered on a particular category, like love stories. Ask questions about their love story with their partner, about the one who got away, about a past love that broke their heart (or whose heart they broke), about a friend or sibling’s love story that was meaningful or inspiring to them, and about their favorite celebrity love story from their childhood. Another category could be adventurous experiences: the time they went on walkabout, or that story about the kangaroo, or even just adventurous games they invented in childhood. Historical events can also provide interesting perspectives: ask them to choose the 3 most important historical events of their lifetime and tell you the story of where they were when it happened and what they thought about it at the time.
Another way to give structure to a life story exercise is to use props. Ask the senior to bring their favorite photo book and tell you the stories behind the best photos. Or ask them to find meaningful objects in their home and tell you the story behind each one. You could even use a set of random words and ask them to tell you a memory that each word makes them think of. No matter what types of structure or tools you use, the key is to try to trigger emotions and memories that will be meaningful and interesting both to share and to hear.
Life Story Questions
While it’s important to avoid following a rigid script during a life story interview, it’s also helpful to have some questions planned ahead of time to get ideas flowing. Just pay attention to interesting stories as they come up, and don’t rush to try to get through all your planned questions. It’s better to hear all the details of one great story than to try to squeeze in as many stories as possible.
Here are some ideas for questions to get you started.
Questions about childhood:
- Which was your favorite room in the house where you grew up and why? What activities did you do there? What colors were in the room? What did it smell like? Who do you remember spending time with there?
- Who was your childhood best friend? How did you meet them? What did you love about them? What was an adventure you shared together? What were your favorite games to play?
- What family traditions did you enjoy as a child? What other family members were part of those traditions?
- Tell me about a memorable holiday in your childhood.
- Tell me about a day you remember spending with a parent or other adult and what you did together.
- What was the best gift you ever received as a child? Was it something you asked for and wanted for a long time, or was it a surprise? What is your favorite memory of using it?
Questions about relationships and family:
- What is your favorite or funniest memory of each of your siblings? What did you tease your siblings about when you were young? What did you play together? What did you fight about?
- Who was your favorite uncle or aunt when you were a child? What activities did you enjoy with them? Tell about a visit with them that you remember.
- How did you meet your partner? What did you think of them when you first saw them? How did you start dating?
- Did you love someone before you met your partner? What happened in that relationship?
- What is your favorite or funniest story about each of your children?
- What do you admire about each of your children?
Questions about history and culture:
- What was the most important historical event that you remember? Where were you when you learned about it? What did you think about it at the time? Why was it important?
- What is the biggest change in the world from when you were a child till now?
- What celebrity did you admire when you were young? Did you have a ‘celebrity crush’? Have you ever met any famous people, and if so, how did you meet them and what did you think of them?
- What was your favorite movie as a child or a teenager? When did you first see it, and whom did you watch it with? Why did you love it then? Do you still love it now, and why?
- What was your favorite book as a child or teenager? Why did you love it? What did you imagine about it? Did you ever create any fan art? Did you imagine you were one of the characters, and if so, which one and why?
Questions about self:
- What has been your biggest success in life? What are you most proud of? Why is that accomplishment important to you?
- What has been your biggest challenge in life, and how did you overcome it? If you could face that challenge again, would you handle it differently?
- What were your goals for your life as a child? What about as a young adult? What are your goals now? Which goals have you achieved, and which have changed?
- What is your best advice for life that you would want to share with your children and grandchildren?
Most importantly, you can use a life story exercise as an opportunity to spend time with a senior you love. Most older people have thousands of stories they’re eager to share. By taking the time to ask and listen, you get the privilege of hearing a lifetime of memories that you can then pass down through the generations.
For more on healthy aging and keeping your elderly loved ones engaged, explore The CareSide’s blog. We’re your source for all things from home care package information to how to become an aged care worker. If you have any questions about aged care or getting your loved ones some extra help, contact us using the button at the top of every page.