Before we dive into the best questions to ask an elder, I want to share how these questions were generated.
In the summer of 2015, I informally surveyed about 30 people ranging from 22-60 years old.
I was curious to know if people saw inherent value in family legacy and elder stories.
Did people actually want to hear what their elders had to say about life? And if so, what questions did they most want to know?
In part, I surveyed people to see if there was a real, burgeoning desire for filmed legacy stories.
I also wanted to investigate a gap that I’ve noticed increasingly.
Based on anecdotal experiences with elders in retirement communities and with the families I’ve worked with, I’m seeing a sad truth.
Many elders don’t believe their stories are valuable.
But the upside is, their children and grandchildren do believe elder stories have value and want a way to capture them.
How Elders Perceive Their Stories
Here’s what usually happens: a new client, inspired to capture his elderly parent’s memories, essence, and wisdom, contacts me.
After we dialogue about the process, the new client reaches out to his parent to make sure the parent is game to participate in the storytelling.
Like clockwork, I receive an email, expressing one of two things:
“Mom is hesitant and not quite sure why we would want to have her story captured. I need a bit more time to talk to her.”
“Mom doesn’t think that she has anything worth sharing, but she agreed to do it.”
At first, I just chuckle when I receive these messages.
Think of an average millennial. She is estimated to post 25,000 selfies in the course of her lifetime!
So, given that estimate, there’s something refreshing about a group of elders who has a healthy hesitation in “capturing” or “sharing” themselves via technology.
But after I chuckle, I sigh.
It’s disheartening that many elders are this reticent, when it comes to sharing about their lives and memories.
There could be numerous factors that contribute to an elder hesitating to share her story.
But the most common I hear is that she simply doesn’t understand why the memories would be of any value to anyone.
Perhaps this is because elders don’t, themselves, value their stories. It could be because they believe others wouldn’t care to hear or watch. After all, we have landed our elderly in retirement homes, mostly disconnected from the fabric of society, at alarming rates.
Whatever the cause, this leaves the nostalgic anthropologist in me asking, “What happened to our culture?”
What happened to “the good old days” when the lives and messages of our elders were viewed as sacred?
What about the days when the community had an unspoken awareness that elders had earned the right to share their insights about their life?
This summer, after receiving another one of these my-mom-is-hesitant-about-this emails, I wanted fodder to prove to the elders that YES, their stories matter. People do care.
Elder Stories – Who Cares?
Keeping it simple, I sent out a two-question survey to my social media community and my email list.
The first question was multiple choice, asking how people would most likely respond, if they were to receive a professionally filmed life story of a beloved elder.
According to this informal sampling of 22-60 year olds, 71% would be “overjoyed” to receive and watch an elderly loved one’s stories.
Although this was not a formal research study by any stretch of the imagination, this small sample may show a potential leaning:
People do value elder stories.
If that’s true, then many elders may be unaware how truly valuable their stories are to others.
To give more weight to these informal findings would require a rigorous survey and random sampling of non-elders. It would also require a random sampling of elders, to see if they feel that their stories have enough merit to be captured and shared, and if they believe that younger folks would like to hear their stories.
In the meantime, this small bit of information gives me enough to sink my teeth into when an elder is convinced that her story isn’t worth capturing!
Questions That Show You Care
Now, we arrive at the BEST questions to ask your loved one.
In the survey, I asked people to share WHAT they wanted to know from their loved one.
“What ONE question would you ask a beloved elder, who is alive or passed?”
Below is a selection of the questions I received and, playfully, I’ve deemed these the BEST questions to ask your elderly loved one.
Because in my opinion, the best question you could ever ask a loved one in her elder years, is a question that you authentically want to know the answer to.
When you’re genuinely curious to receive the answer, you’ll ignite a conversation that has the potential to be truthful, deep, and open-hearted.
It’s that simple.
The questions below strike me as those types of genuine, heart-inspired inquiries.
Questions to Ask an Elder:
- What are the three most important lessons you discovered in life, and can you share the stories of how you discovered them?
- What environment is the best to support humans being at their best, no matter what?
- What made your life meaningful – what has given it meaning?
- What was the one thing you always wanted to do, but never did? Can you share the story of why you never did it?
- What aspects of yourself (things about yourself) did you really enjoy throughout life?
- What advice do you have for humanity to evolve? And why this advice?
- What does love feel like for you? What is love, to you? When did you discover this in your life?
- What does it mean to live a life of integrity? How did you come to know this?
- How did you adapt to generational change as you grew older?
- What makes you happy? What have you discovered about happiness throughout your life?
- Do you believe in God? Why or why not?
- What, in the way that you lived your life and created your legacy, brought you the most joy?
- If we know that everything is perfect as is, why is it so challenging to keep the faith and trust in that?
- How have you been able to forgive, accept, and make peace with all that happens in life?
- How have you stayed fresh and curious toward life?
- – Your question here –
Give it a go!
Sometimes all it takes is one or two heartfelt questions to deepen a relationship and show an elder that you do care.
Let’s remind the people we love that their stories matter.
Ask genuine questions. Open your heart to the answers!
For more tips on capturing a great life story, or beautiful short stories, click here.
True Story Works is here if you need help crafting your story,
or capturing that unique story of a loved one.