As loved ones advance in age, you may find yourself taking a greater interest in their life stories. Maybe they are stories you have always wondered about or heard about from others family members. Research shows there are plenty of good reasons to record the stories of your older relatives–both for them and for the generations that follow. Asking older relatives about the past can deepen relationships and help them feel valued. Preserving their memories contributes to your family’s sense of intergenerational identity, which is key to building emotional resilience.
But if Alzheimer’s or dementia has already caused memory loss, interviewing them can be a confusing or frustrating experience. Or you may fear it’s too late to try. But that’s not always the case. In the past 10 years, I have conducted many family history interviews and learned strategies that can help you work with a loved one who has some memory loss.
You’ll be more successful gathering memories from loved ones with Alzheimer’s (and you’ll both enjoy it more) if you practice a few key strategies.
- Start gathering their memories now.
In the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, people still have access to many memories. The sooner you try to capture their life stories, the better the likelihood of success. If you’re worried that your relative might become frustrated by attempting to recall elusive details, take courage. Research findings show that the act of reminiscing generally has a positive effect on emotional well-being and life satisfaction in older adults, including those with dementia.
- Focus on distant events and favorite memories.
Older memories are more likely to be accessible to those with Alzheimer’s disease. Ask about favorite childhood friends, games, toys, pets, foods, and sports. See what holiday traditions or celebrations they might recall. If this goes well, move forward in time with your questions.
You may have noticed that older relatives—healthy or not—often repeat their favorite stories. “This habit is amplified in people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s with a twist,” writes New York Times bestselling author Tom Zoellner in Homemade Biography: How to Collect, Record, and Tell the Life Story of Someone You Love. “New stories may emerge. The yarns may seem to be about banal things—a long-ago music teacher, the construction of a new highway, a sale on pantyhose—but there may be an underlying reason for the broken-record effect.” So pay attention to these stories, too.
- Accept what they have to give.
Memory-sharing sessions may be short and sparse. Try to be grateful for every positive encounter your loved ones have with their memories. Keep a light and conversational tone. Avoid pressing for specific details or expressing disappointment or exasperation. If they go off on tangents, don’t try too hard to steer the conversation.
Many people with dementia experience disinhibition, or lack of the social judgment that usually keeps people from saying shocking things. You may hear upsetting family secrets or insults toward yourself or others. Try not to take these things personally or show a strong emotional reaction.
- Pose your questions indirectly.
Zoellner suggests two strategies for interviewing memory-impaired relatives without interrogating them. First, repeat their favorite words back to them. Second, “Phrase your questions as neutral statements and hope that your subject takes the bait.” This softens the pressure they may feel to recall details on demand, while still inviting them to comment.
Q: I understand your family spent a lot of time with the neighbors.
A: The ones with the pool.
Q: A pool. They must have been fun to visit.
A: All the kids liked the pool.
Q: I wonder if they had kids to be in the pool with you.
A: Horace was older. Their son.
Q: I don’t recall their last name.
A: Horace Robinson. He was older.
- Research what you can.
Documenting your loved ones’ lives may require some discreet research when they can’t reliably tell their own stories. Consider asking other relatives to weigh in with their own stories and clarifications. (Just don’t ask in front of your memory-impaired loved ones.) Look to old family papers, copies of old birth or death certificates, old newspaper articles, yearbooks, local histories, and any other possible resources. Ask a librarian (especially a local history or genealogy specialist) for assistance in accessing materials such as these online.
- Use props.
Sharing artifacts with memory-impaired relatives may prompt interest—and recall. Pull out some personal belongings: an outfit, uniform, suitcase, painting, baseball card, pair of shoes, fishing pole or piece of jewelry. Start a conversation around the objects: “This looks like it’s been well-loved” or “What a beautiful dress.”
Prepare an old family recipe to see what memories the smells or tastes may evoke in your loved ones. Play popular music or movies from their younger days. These experiences that appeal to their senses—touch, sight, smell, hearing or taste—may bring forth more stories or feelings.
Consider keeping such items handy in a “memory box.” As Alzheimer’s progresses, these tangible reminders of the past may help preserve memories and even reduce dementia-related feelings of depression.
- Photos. Photos. Photos.
The most powerful and effective props are often old photographs. They can jog memories sometimes when other approaches can’t. I have seen this happen in my own family.
When my great-grandmother Jo Henderson was a teenager in the 1910s, she received a Brownie box camera, an inexpensive and easy-to-use camera. She took hundreds of photos of daily life: hanging out with friends, going on picnics and to school, posing with boyfriends, and—my favorite—sitting on her brother’s motorcycle. Jo pasted the pictures onto the black pages of an album that over decades became dog-eared with use.
In her last years, my grandmother developed dementia. And in her last months, she could no longer speak – but she responded to those photos. During my mother’s final visit with her, they sat together in silence, until my mother opened up that old album. Suddenly Jo said, “Why, that’s Gertie Byleu!” and pointed at a picture of her childhood friend. She began spouting more names, and then stories. Her surge of clarity probably lasted a few minutes, but it was enough for my mom to reconnect with her mind and enjoy her memories.
Sunny Jane Morton is a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine and the author of hundreds of publications on how to trace family history, including Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites, Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy and the forthcoming How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records.