Two years ago, I received a text from a friend. She was sitting with her sister at the bedside of their 84-year old father, whose health was failing. The text said something like this: “We want to do a DNA test with dad to find out his ethnic background and where his family immigrated from. We need to do this quickly. How should I proceed?”
As someone who teaches people how to trace their family trees, I get questions like this more and more frequently. More than 26 million people have now taken consumer DNA tests to learn more about their family’s health history, ethnic heritage and biological connections—and the numbers keep climbing.
To maximize your family research, experts recommend testing members of the oldest living generation whenever possible. With each succeeding generation, some DNA doesn’t get handed down. So test results for older generations hold unique connections to the past. Their closer genetic relationships to others who have tested may also be easier to identify than your own, more distant relationships. As a general rule, it’s ideal to test multiple relatives as you will get a better overall genetic picture of your family.
But your family members may not be as ready as you are to learn more about your shared heritage via DNA testing. Here are some tips to help you approach them.
Invite them to test
Whenever you invite a relative to take a DNA test, explain why you’re asking. Share your curiosity about your ethnicity or your desire to find biological relatives. Tell them about a specific family mystery or health history that’s on your mind. Your enthusiasm may convince them to participate. They may be able to shed some light on your questions even before they take a test. And they have the right to know what you’re hoping to learn from their genes.
Be clear about the risks
Anyone who takes consumer DNA tests (or their legal guardians) must personally agree to the test provider’s terms of service, and be aware that test-takers legally own their test results. Decision-makers should be aware of the current and future risks and benefits of testing. These include having your DNA test results made available to another party; unexpected discoveries about family relationships and the possibility that the DNA sample might be used to identify DNA evidence at a crime scene.
If your loved one has some cognitive impairment but may be able to decide whether to test, explain the process as clearly as possible. Try to catch your relative at a time of day when they are at their best. In my friend’s case, her father was completely incapacitated. So her entire nuclear family, including her mother (who was his guardian), agreed together to have him tested.
Choose which DNA test to take
Most people take the autosomal DNA test from 23andMe, Ancestry, MyHeritage or Family Tree DNA. These provide ethnicity estimates and optional connections to genetic cousins on both sides of the tester’s family. My friend also had her father take a separate YDNA test from Family Tree DNA, which provided ethnicity and genetic matches specific to his paternal line (his father’s father’s father, etc.)
Plan who will manage test results
Sometimes, older relatives want to purchase their own tests, view the results and/or correspond with genetic matches. Others may want or need help with these tasks. Each testing company has procedures for adding a manager to the tester’s account. The manager should know what kinds of information the tester wants to be told (or not told) about their own results—and should keep everything else confidential. You may also want to plan ahead regarding who will own the test results, should a loved one pass away or become incapacitated.
Consider the logistics.
When inviting older relatives to test, additional logistical considerations may come up. Some older adults don’t have sufficient saliva and some can’t spit. Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage both offer cheek swab tests instead of requiring a saliva sample.
Another possibility is that you may not have sufficient time to order a test kit due to a loved one’s failing health or other circumstances. In these cases, experts recommend that you go to the nearest drugstore and purchase an Identigene paternity kit: it’s similar enough to Family Tree DNA’s test kit that they will accept these tests. Contact the company for further instructions on mailing in the kit for processing.
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.