‘Tis the Season for Storytelling

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Jay Newton-Small
Cofounder, MemoryWell

‘Tis the holiday season, and while most families are trying desperately to avoid politics this year, might I suggest an alternative that can bring much more joy? As you look across your turkey at your loved ones, there is probably a senior in the room, someone who has a wealth of family knowledge and life experience. Take it from me, one of the greatest gifts family can give is passing down stories from one generation to the next. After my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was still in college, it became our family Christmas tradition to sit down, digital recorder and camera in hand, and get my dad to reminisce about his wonderful life. I treasure those memories to this day, and they softened the blow of his passing last year.

Collecting life histories-and end of life wishes-can be daunting. I’m a professional journalist, and even I was at a loss in the beginning: Where do you start? What should you avoid? And how do you make sense of all the data once you’ve collected it?

For my dad, I started with things he loved, so in his case: golf. I had him recount how his mother taught him golf as a boy and how she was better than any of the male players at the club, even though they wouldn’t let her play with the men. Golf led to how his parents met and life in an Australian boarding school at age 8. Some other great early childhood questions:

  • What was your first job?
  • Who was your first crush/kiss?
  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • Did your brothers/sisters pick on you? Did you pick on your brothers/sisters?
  • Were you a good student?
  • What sports did you play?

Asking my dad these questions led to some surprising discoveries. Like the fact that he’d made the Australian Olympic team for diving but didn’t compete because he blew out his eardrum. The other thing that proved incredibly fruitful was going through family photos with him. Not only did he identify people I would never have known, but each picture stirred old memories and provided great stories.

I found starting in childhood and then moving forward to be the most effective way to work with my dad. It avoided the pitfalls of recent lost memories, and I could see when he was becoming more distressed because he couldn’t remember things — and I could stop the conversation or redirect it back to other memories. Alzheimer’s is regressive, so he would always remember his childhood more easily than any of his more recent experiences. I also avoided sensitive subjects that might upset him like his brother’s suicide or his parents’ deaths. I only asked about them in their prime-how he remembered them from his formative years.

There are also some websites that can be helpful. For example, NPR’s StoryCorps has some suggestions of questions to ask grandparents:

  • Where did you grow up?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Who were your favorite relatives?
  • Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?
  • How did you and grandma/grandpa meet?
  • What was my mom/dad like growing up?
  • Do you remember any songs that you used to sing to her/him? Can you sing them now?
  • Was she/he well-behaved?
  • What is the worst thing she/he ever did?
  • What were your parents like?
  • What were your grandparents like?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • Are you proud of me?

Inevitably, the conversations led to one on mortality, and this is an important crossroads. My mother died without any advance directives and it was up to me to decide whether to unplug her from life support and donate her organs. There is nothing crueler to a child than leaving them unprepared for your death. Ironically, we’d had these conversations with my father because of our talks about his life-my mother was so young and in good health, we hadn’t prepared for her passing. There will be a moment in these conversations where you can easily segue into their final wishes: Do they want extreme measures taken to keep them alive? Do they want to donate their organs? There are a couple of great websites, Cake and The Conversation Project, which provide detailed questions. These conversations never fully lose their sense of macabre, but these websites make them as painless as possible.

Finally, what do you do with all this? Well, there are a number of resources that can help you include The History Project, StoryCorps, LifeBio, Legacy Letters and our own MemoryWell. These can help you organize your stories into various products whether they be multimedia or narrative. Or you can do your own scrapbook or Facebook page as I did for my dad before we started MemoryWell. However you decide to do it, giving the gift of your elder’s life story is an invaluable one for the whole family and generations to come.

Ilan Brat
Cofounder, MemoryWell
312 785 7101