How To Gather Oral History From Family With Memory Loss

Do not miss out on interviewing a family member who has memory loss about your family history. 5 tips to get you started!

Are you missing out on vital family history clues, because of poor assumptions? 🤔

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 memory of a loved one. 

Young woman on left with long hair, older woman with short gray hair in middle and young man wearing glasses and red shirt on right
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According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, 55 million people around the world suffered from dementia in 2020. Approximately every 3.2 seconds, someone is diagnosed with dementia resulting in ~10 million new cases every year. 

Certainly a tragedy for the entire family.

However, I encourage you not to pass up an opportunity to interview a family member  who has dementia or memory loss about your family history. 

Yes, their memory is impaired, with short term memory fading before longer term memories.  They may not be able to 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 can be 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”, family history clues can still be discovered.

Connecting with your family member and tapping into those memories provides a touchpoint and vital social connection for both you and your family member.

5 Tips for Interviewing a Family Member with Dementia

Perhaps you are unsure of how to connect with your family member who has memory loss.  Maybe you are unsure of what to ask. 

These 5 tips will help you get started and ensure you and your family member(s)  have an enjoyable time connecting and reminiscing.

  1. Find out the best time of day to visit and interview your older relatives. If your relative always takes a nap from 1-2 P. M.  in the afternoon, early afternoon is not the best time to schedule time to talk.  Talk to your relative’s caregiver to determine the best time to interview him/her.

  1. Perform your oral history interview in a quiet place with few distractions. Distractions such as the television playing and other people moving about, can be quite distracting during a family history interview – or chat, if you will. Minimize these as much as you can.  If your aunt lives in a nursing home and has a roommate who always watches TV with the volume turned all the way up, try to find another area to talk with fewer distractions. A quiet spot in the day room or a private event room works great. The facility can assist you with this if you ask ahead of time.

  1. Use a photograph as an icebreaker.  We all love looking at photographs. Do you have a photograph of your relative as a young man or woman? Perhaps a photograph of his/her siblings? Share the photograph and ask questions about it.  How old were they  in the photograph? Who are the other people in the photograph? On more than one occasion, I have seen a family member’s face light up with a huge smile and start chatting when shown an old family photo.  [I bring copies of photographs to leave with whomever I am interviewing. It is a gift that is always appreciated.] Pro Tip: If your ancestors were not very good photographers like mine 😏 use Vivid-Pix Restore to edit those old family photos. It allows you to sharpen and “fix” old photos, so that they are easier to view and find helpful details. [Learn more in my Vivid-Pix tutorial.]
Sepia toned photo from early 1900's of 4 children - 2 boys & 2 girls - of William and Clara Haley
  1. Listen! The best thing you can do when visiting and interviewing your relative is to listen.  Let your grandmother/aunt/ uncle/distant cousin lead the conversation. Your goal may be to identify the people in a photograph. Your relative  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 as!

  1. Recognize when it is time to wrap up your interview or visit. Is your relative looking fatigued? Is she repeating herself more frequently? Are you needing to repeat your questions or comments.   If so, end the interview.  You will always have more questions you want to ask. After all, we are genealogy researchers! However, overstaying your visit leads to fatigue and possibly irritability. In the older population with dementia, if possible, I recommend interviewing them across several, shorter visits.

Whose family stories are you missing out on? Which relative are you overlooking reaching out to? 

Remember, interviewing a relative who suffers from any form of memory loss, is not only about the family stories. It is also about the connection. Connection to family. Connection to self. Those family connections and social interactions benefit both you and your relative in a variety of intangible ways.

Now you know exactly why you should include oral history interviews of all family members including those suffering from dementia in your genealogy research plans, what else should go into your genealogy research plan? I’ve got a post [including a video(!)] for you to read next to help you with that.

Continue the learning with these posts:

  1. Use Social History in Genealogy Research – Telling Your Ancestors’ Stories
  2. How to Create Your Genealogy Research Plan (& Why You Should!)
  3. How To Restore Old Family Photos With Vivid-Pix Restore (Tutorial)
  4. The 12 Days of Genealogy Christmas
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11 thoughts on “How To Gather Oral History From Family With Memory Loss”

  1. Another tip that I find useful when interviewing or chatting with someone who has dementia is to not use the phrase “do you remember [this or that]?” Starting off a sentence with those words often leads to “I don’t remember” and that can stall the conversation by adding more ‘memory stress’.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Gail! I’m excited to be included in your Creme de la Creme group.

  2. If you don’t have a picture, anything in writing can help. I printed a family group sheet with “Aunt Betty” and her sibs. She studied it for a minute and said, “That’s my sister and you have her name spelled wrong!” I thinked her and got the right spelling and about 30 minutes of other stories and wonderful information 🙂

  3. Jane Roberts

    Some really useful tips. I think the key is patience and, as you said, recognising when “Aunt Betty” is tiring. Thank you for sharing

    1. Jane, I’m glad you found the tips useful! I agree that recognizing when your relative is tiring is so important.

  4. When my mother had significant short-term memory loss, I found all four years of her high school yearbooks on eBay. When we sat down together to look at them, she was a gushing fountain of all sorts of inforation about her former classmates and her own life at the time. All those memories were still there in great detail. It only took the right way to access them.

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