Occasionally, I’ll meet a bright-eyed stranger at a coffee shop or in line at a grocery store, and he or she will ask me how to do it.
“What do you mean?” I’ll usually ask.
“Do you have any suggestions for how to get my grandfather to talk or what to ask him?”
Conversations like this have become frequent enough, that I wanted to share my 8 essential tips for story creating and co-crafting with an elder.
They’re in no particular order. Enjoy!
#1 Organize interview questions by life phases
When people ask, “How do I do it?” I think what they’re really looking for is, “Where do I start?”
Getting clear on whether you want key short stories, or your elderly loved one’s full life story is the first step.
If you’re using a phone to capture video or audio stories, you may only have capacity for shorter story vignettes like, “How did you and grandma meet?” “How did you know she was the one for you?”
If you’re going for the breadth of your loved one’s life story, then I find it’s easiest to break your interview questions into life phases and themes: childhood, teen years, career, marriage and family, hobbies and passions, etc.
We are linear narrators, in the West, which means we perceive and express life in a linear, chronological timeline.
So for us, it’s valuable to organize story questions in the life phases in which they were lived.
#2 Ask Open-ended Questions
If you want a story, you have to ask questions in a way that encourages a story to be told!
Your questions need to be open and general enough to generate thoughtful and in-depth answers.
“Can you tell me about what it was like growing up in Pensacola?”
“Can you tell me the story about when dad was born?”
“How old were you when you enlisted in the Navy and what was it like when you first got in?”
Depending on mental acuity, some elders may have a harder time answering open-ended questions and filling in the gaps of more general inquiries.
That’s when asking follow-up questions is key.
For example, if you asked your grandfather about the story of your dad’s birth, and you receive a blank face, you may say:
“Where were you living?”
“How old were you and Grandma at the time?”
“What were the few days like before he was born? Were you in the delivery room?”
These more specific questions will prime the memory and get the story wheels turning.
#3 Look at Photos Together
Before I captured my grandmother’s story, we sat at the kitchen table with a pile of family albums and a stack of loose pictures between us.
One by one, we picked up albums, thumbing through the sleeves.
I’d hold a photo up, asking, “Grammy, who is this?” “How old were you here?” “Where was this one taken?”
From across the table, she’d squint at the picture.
Then her eyes would light up and she’d give a chuckle, launching into the story.
I was amazed at all the things that I didn’t know about my grandmother.
Her mother was unstable and her father mostly raised her; she had wanted to be a nurse since she was four; she was told she would never have children and she ended up with five!
The next day, when I recorded her full life story on video, her memory was primed and I had a new foundation from which to inquire.
Regardless of how old you are, looking at photos is a sure-fire way to entice stories and memories.
This is especially true for those who are in their elder years.
Often, it’s been awhile since elders have thought about what life was like when they were children, let alone shared the stories with anyone.
Pull out photo albums that cover the range of your loved one’s lifetime and start asking questions.
If you want to record stories informally, you could set up a video camera throughout this process of photo perusing.
If you want to get a full life story recorded, then I suggest you look at photos as a primer to capturing the story.
It goes without saying, that flipping through photo albums with someone you love is a priceless experience, in and of itself.
Now, of all the memories I have with my grandmother, looking at photos together tops the list.
#4 Create Uninterrupted Time to be Together
It’s so crucial that you give this process its rightful time and space.
Practically, that means chunking out 1.5-2 hours to spend together. Just the two of you.
Make sure other family members know this is your time with your loved one.
That time will allow the conversation to be organic and fluid. It will allow your loved one the space to share and be heard, without feeling rushed.
This process can be incredibly transformative for both the listener and the storyteller, when it’s given its due honor with time and space.
Just as it’s important to have enough time, it’s also vital not to push it.
It’s helpful – especially if you plan to record – to ask your loved one beforehand for this time together. Be clear with him about how much time you’d like to spend and why.
I’ve found that more than 2-2.5 hours of story sharing and listening is too much for an elderly person.
It can be tiring telling the story of your life! This can cause irritability and a sour feeling for the experience.
Use your intuition to gauge when enough is enough for one story sitting.
#5 Ask Questions that Matter to You
As I shared in a previous article, the BEST questions you could ask are the questions that matter to you.
This may seem counter-intuitive.
Shouldn’t we ask the questions that the storyteller is inspired to share about?
Yes, those questions are important, too, but it’s the genuine questions that make all the difference for the co-creative story process.
When we genuinely want to know a specific story or piece of wisdom, we will genuinely be available to listen and receive the story. (For a list of unique questions, generated by people who really wanted to know the answers from elders, click here.)
Most people can easily sense when someone authentically wants to listen to what they have to say. They will modulate their answer based on your curiosity and interest.
That leads us to #6…
#6 Be Present
Really. Be present.
Turn off your phone.
Keep your body language open.
Make eye contact.
Relax your body.
Let yourself fall into the stories.
#7 Be Patient
This is a big one.
A few months ago, I was working with an elderly storytelling client. She’s lived a rich life full of many adventures, but by nature, she’s not a talker.
When I started to ask questions about her parents and her childhood, she laughed and stared at me blankly.
“Oh, jeesh. I don’t remember,” she said.
Then she would look at me quietly, ready to move onto the next question.
It was all I could do to stay patient and let the process breathe, not rushing through the first set of questions simply because she seemed uncomfortable.
It went on like that for about 10 minutes – a very awkward 10 minutes.
Until finally, after digging around with more specific questions, her story banks opened.
She shared beautiful vignettes about being on the ocean with her cousin, skating on frozen ponds in the winter, and working in the garden when she was a child.
Many elders have never been asked to share about themselves. And many are confronting memory loss, with the onset of dementia or even Alzheimer’s.
Prepare yourself for the reality that your loved one may be hesitant or unable to share certain stories or memories.
Although it can be uncomfortable sometimes, stick with it.
Try not to jump right in with a follow-up question or skip to the next question.
Because story is alive and a co-created experience, the story listener contributes to the tone and pace of the story creation immensely.
Typically, if you stick with the experience -even when someone is really struggling with memory – you’ll hit on at least two or three stories that she’ll remember in detail.
And again, use your intuition on when not to push forward with certain questions.
Many people in their elder years can be tender around memory loss. If you’re story crafting with a loved one, likely you already have a sense of the appropriate way to approach memory loss with her.
Trust that the stories that are meant to be shared, will be.
Know that despite how many stories you gather, just the fact that you cared enough to ask, is significant.
#8 Stay Open
Staying open is part of truly being present to whatever stories are shared and how.
You may receive a story or response that you don’t understand or don’t agree with.
It may be uncomfortable to hear stories about an elder’s beliefs or involvement in political or religious activities.
It may make you squirm to hear a version of a family-related story that doesn’t feel “accurate” or “truthful.”
It’s helpful to remember that stories aren’t “truth.” They’re simply personal accounts of lived experiences.
Just because your loved one is an “elder” doesn’t mean he or she has all the “Truths” about life or that you have to agree.
All that said, I’d encourage you to stay open to the possibility that, in years to come, you may look back and receive new insight about what your elderly loved one was communicating to you.
Even when there’s a message from an elder that doesn’t resonate, I find there’s typically an invaluable golden nugget, that’s important for me to hear.
Someone once said, “Listen to your elder’s advice, not because they are always right, but because they have more experience with being wrong.”
Hope you’ve found these tips helpful!
Stories matter! Craft and celebrate the good ones!
Not enough time to capture your elderly loved one’s story?
True Story Works can help. Click here to be in touch today.
*photos in this article are courtesy of google images