I often hear from fellow genealogists who wished they had obtained oral family history from their older relatives sooner. Now many find it too late. A relative has passed away or dementia is claiming the mind a loved one. I would encourage you not to pass up an opportunity to interview a family member who has dementia or memory loss about your family history. Yes, often the short term memory is impaired. For example, they may not remember who came to visit the day before or what they had for breakfast that morning. However, depending on how advanced the dementia is, the long term memories are often intact. They may well be able to remember stories from their childhood or young adulthood. Even if the stories or family information are a bit “fuzzy”, clues may discovered by the interviewer.
5 Tips for Interviewing a Family Member with Dementia.
- Find out the best time of day to interview your older relative. If Aunt Betty always takes a nap from 1-2 in the afternoon, early afternoon is not the best time to schedule time to talk. Aunt Betty’s caregiver should be able to guide you in choosing the best time to interview her.
- Perform your oral history interview in a quiet place with few distractions. If Aunt Betty lives in a nursing home and has a roommate who always watches TV, try to find another place with fewer distractions. The facility can assist you with this if you ask ahead of time.
- Use a photograph as an icebreaker. We all love looking at photographs. Do you have a photograph of Aunt Betty as a young woman? Perhaps a photograph of her siblings? Share the photograph and ask questions about it. How old was she in the photograph? Who are the other people in the photograph? [I bring a copies of photographs to leave with whomever I am interviewing. It is a gift always appreciated.]
- Listen! Let Aunt Betty lead the conversation. Your goal may be to identify the people in a photograph. Aunt Betty may do that and also tell you much more. You may learn about the personalities and characteristics of the individuals in the photograph. You may learn family stories that have almost disappeared from your family’s lore. In other words, you may learn answers to questions you did not even know to ask!
- Recognize when it is time to wrap up your interview. Is Aunt Betty looking fatigued? Is she repeating herself more frequently? Are you needing to repeat your questions/comments. If so, end the interview. You will always have more questions you wanted to ask. In the older population with dementia, I recommend interviewing them on several occasions if possible.
Have you been putting interviewing someone in your family because they have dementia?
Don’t delay! Leave me a comment and share what you learn.