Interviewing Aging Elders

Dennis Stack

Whether you are a professional caregiver or have finally gotten around to asking an aging relative to share their life stories, be prepared for the unexpected. As enthused as you might be to hear some amazing life experiences, the elder may not be so much. Young people today are living in a world where sharing minute-by-minute life experiences are the norm. Senior citizens, on the other hand, grew up keeping things to themselves. Humility is often the biggest obstacle to overcome before opening a treasure trove of valuable life lessons. Ask an elder to tell their stories and you’ll probably get one of these responses:

  • I lived a boring life and there’s really nothing that interesting to tell
  • I was never a good storyteller
  • I don’t remember much about my past

With this in mind, here are 10 tips to interview, record and preserve legacy stories of aging elders.  

  1. Start by talking about others. A perfect ice-breaker to jump start the interview is by asking him or her to talk about someone else. This exercise opens the dialog between you and the elder and establishes a certain level of intimacy and trust.
  1. Ask about ancestors. Talking about others is the ideal ice-breaker so why not gather some priceless family history that only they may have personal intimate knowledge? Start as far back as they remember and move forward such as asking what he or she remembers about great grandparents, then grandparents, then parents, for example. You’ll be surprised what seniors can remember about their distant past, even those suffering with early stage Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.
  1. Ask open-ended questions. Avoid yes/no questions like, “Did you know your grandparents?” Instead, rephrase to, “Tell me what you remember about your grandparents.”
  1. Transition to early childhood memories. Once the conversation begins to flow, you might find that the same person who, only a few minutes ago said they have nothing to share, can’t stop talking. Now it’s time to transition the interview so the focus is on the teller, not others. Starting with early childhood memories is best but be prepared for surprises. Some childhood memories may not be so fond. Don’t push the subject. Steer the conversation more generally like, “Tell me about the home and neighborhood you lived in as a child.”
  1. Use vintage family photos. Everyone loves to reminisce with old family photos and this is one of the best ways get seniors talking about themselves. Choose photos that depict an event, if possible, rather than a portrait. “What do you remember about that day or those people in the photos.” Many people in those old photos might as well be strangers to grandchildren but could be an important part of their family history.
  1. Use artifacts and keepsakes. A simple book of matches with a faded phone number scribbled inside the cover, pulled from the kitchen hutch, could reveal an amazing story of a first date with a future spouse. Keepsakes are physical artifacts we save to remind us of special people or moments in our lives. What better way to elicit a priceless life story than to talk about a keepsake? “Tell me about this keepsake. Where did you get it and what were the circumstances?”
  1. Don’t overdo it. It is unreasonable for a younger, healthier person to share their life story in one sitting and it’s impossible for elders. Knowing when to quit the interview is crucial because you want to leave the teller wanting to do more. Leaving him or her exhausted may result in excuses to avoid another interview.
  1. Time is of the essence. In some cases, time may not be on your side when the elder’s health or memory is failing. It’s all the more reason to prepare ahead for each interview so you know exactly what questions to ask and what photos and keepsakes to bring. Choose “legacy” questions, photos and keepsakes. Not all life stories and photos are legacy-worthy. Take the time to make them count, especially when time is of the essence.
  1. Have your recorder ready. Many seniors may not want to be remembered by the way they look in their current condition or could feel self-conscious with a video camera in front of them. It’s the voice and story that matters most in these interviews. Using a digital voice recorder not only captures the personality, dialect and attitude of the teller, but these audio recordings can be transcribed later for writing a memoir or biography.
  1. Preserve, backup and share the treasures. As these priceless stories are recorded, it is critical that they are backed up to preserve and protect for future generations. You’ll have the original recordings on the device and should back them up on a thumb drive or your computer. For online backup, make sure they are uploaded to the teller’s LegacyStories.orgportfolio in the “My Pict-Orals” component. There, you can add a photo to each audio, create albums to organize into life stages and also discriminately share. More importantly, you can easily download the audio tracks and related photos in the event they are ever lost on your PC.

Following these 10 steps will assure that you capture the essence of one’s life story as quickly and efficiently as possible, which is important when working with seniors.

 

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