Catching the Memories Before They Fly Away

One of our most valuable natural resources is not timber, oil, or gold; rather, it is the memories of our older aged relatives and friends. They possess a wealth of knowledge and experience that too often is insufficiently explored.

These individuals have lived through global wars, social and sexual revolutions, unfathomed technological and medical advancements, and deep exploration of the heavens that were still a dream during their childhood. They not only witnessed but may have played a role in these historic events. Their experiences, therefore, are far too important for us and future generations to leave unmined.

Many of us have not yet taken the time to talk to our older relatives and friends about their lives—not just those pertaining to world events—but with respect to their life in general. Frequently, our interactions with older aged family and friends consist of “small talk.” Perhaps, we ask them about their health or if they need anything. Maybe what they really need is to share their memories and life history while they can with those whom they care about and love. It may be the most valuable legacy they can give to us.

Today, more and more people are interested in their genetic make-up and exploring their family tree. Although few people conduct formal oral histories of their living relatives, the numbers are increasing. In fact, there are numerous books and websites that offer outlines to follow and suggestions in how to increase the amount and quality of the historical information disclosed.

If we wish to employ a full oral history approach on our relatives or friends, we should ask them if they are interested in participating. We need to bear in mind their age and ability for sustained attention when conducting the interviews. In addition, we should inform them of the value of the process and how it will be memorialized for others to see/hear/read (depending on whether the interviews are video/audio recoded or transcribed).

Sometimes, the interviewees may not want to follow a prepared outline of questions. They may have certain memories that are more meaningful to them and may be reluctant to spend time on what they perceive as mundane issues (e.g., school history, work history).

  • Should we cajole them to answer these questions?
  • Should we ask them to elaborate further on their responses?
  • Should we ask questions that may evoke painful memories?

When trying to obtain an historical version of our relatives’ lives, we must remember the purpose of the interview. It is not only a means to gather information about our family’s history, but could also be an opportunity for the interviewees to

  • Relate what they want to share with others
  • Be in the company of another and have someone to listen to them
  • Explain why they did whatever they did during their life or an event; or how they felt about certain times in their life
  • Gain validation from themselves and others
  • Fulfill any other needs they may have in disclosing the information

Regardless of whether we conduct a formal oral history or simply take time to ask our older aged relatives or friends questions about their lives, no encounter should include intentional infliction of pain or be seen as an interrogation. Respecting their refusal to answer our questions is their prerogative and should be the premise of the enterprise. Thus, when asking people to recount their memories, we need to remember that

  • Some memories may be too painful to recall
  • We should be sensitive and allow the person to feel comfortable in talking with us as well as in refusing to answer certain questions
  • Support and understanding should always be communicated

Sometimes, short or long breaks will be necessary; the process of remembering can be physically/cognitively arduous or emotionally taxing for the relative or friend. We should also make sure that it is safe for the older relative or friend to continue reminiscing after our conversation. It may be advisable not to leave the person alone after the discussion as well as check back later to see if they are okay.

Whether we undertake a formal oral history or just sit and listen to the recollections of our older relatives and friends, we need to recognize that memory loss often accompanies aging. However, memories formed during adolescence and early adulthood often remain vivid as do personal events that occur during historical times (Schuman & Scott, 1989). Even if the accuracy of the information our older relatives or friends tell us about their lives is not up to scientific standards, the accounts they are relating reflect their perceptions of the events (that also can vary across time).

Considering the above, what does this all mean? Older aged people possess information that if disclosed to others can enhance lives—theirs and ours. At minimum, by spending time with them—listening and talking—we both become more enriched. We feel validated in recognizing that both of us have something to give and take from each other. When elderly relatives or friends share their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and intimacies, they are presenting the listener with a gift of getting to know them better and feeling honored to have been chosen to bear witness. When we make ourselves available to elderly people, we are not only giving them our time, but also demonstrating curiosity about their life and expressing gratitude for their disclosures. By doing so, the elderly person feels cared for, respected, and valued.

There is no better gift than the giving of oneself to another. It could make the best memory of all.

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