What to ask an aging relative?
October 10, 2016 7:15 PM   Subscribe

There is a project I have been pushing off for a long time now of sitting my loved ones down and interviewing them, maybe on tape. What questions am I going to most appreciate having their answers to, some day in the (hopefully distant) future when I can no longer ask them?

(or, to rephrase the question in a negative light, what questions might I most regret not asking?)

I am familiar with storycorps.org and their accompanying app, but was hoping to pick the hivemind's brain for more suggestions/advice.
posted by Cozybee to Human Relations (14 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Ask them about their grandparents or great grandparents and anything they remember from relatives that were old when they were young.
posted by ilovewinter at 7:37 PM on October 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

Questions about their childhood. What were their parents like? Where did they live? What was school like? Did they have teachers or friends that they particularly remember?
How did they meet their spouse? What was the wedding like?
posted by fancyoats at 7:40 PM on October 10, 2016

I think it's going to be hard to give you specific questions to a degree, because the things you'll really want to know will be things that shed light on specific relationships in your family.

I have done a bunch of interviews for my job, though. Different people have different styles that can work for them when it comes to interviews, but I personally I found I got the richest, most interesting material when the subjects had relaxed enough to forget they were being interviewed. To get them relaxed, it helps to start with easy questions --- in your case, maybe something like the name of the street they grew up on, how old they were when they came over, something like that. Just have a few real simple things to start, and be ready to follow them --- that is, when they start to light up when they talk about something, stick to that topic and draw them out more. If they mention something that piques your interest or confuses you, literally just ask them "tell me a little more about that."

Otherwise, you might consider using other senses, as well. Like ask, "What sort of smells remind you of the house where you grew up?" Scent's a very powerful memory trigger, and it's one of those things that can tell you a lot about everyday life that you can never tell from book or films or photos. Details usually have interesting stories behind them, things you'd never think about.
posted by Diablevert at 7:41 PM on October 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

It can be good to just have some questions to get them talking, and then that will lead to other related memories - so it can be good to ask about trivial stuff can lead to good riffs, like "what was your first car" can lead to talking about what their situation was when they got the car, what it was like to drive, how have the roads changed in this town, did they take trips, etc. Did they have pets when they were kids, what was their favorite meal growing up, what was their first job, what did they want to be when they grew up, etc.

Also of course, get the just-the-facts of - who's who in the family, what are their relationships, where did they come from and where do they live now; any significant medical stuff in the family history; old addresses; contact info; where people are buried.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:45 PM on October 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ask them about gossip! Ask them about gossip forever. Don't just ask the nice stuff, ask if they've ever had a feud? Or got in a fight? These produce the most interesting stories sometimes, they get pretty animated and forget you're recording.
posted by corb at 8:58 PM on October 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm glad I asked my grandmother some things I was nervous to ask her about her mysterious missing ex-husband (my grandfather). So I guess I'm saying, ask the hard questions (if you really want to know the answers).
posted by soakimbo at 9:05 PM on October 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I was interviewed by a young relative, the most interesting questions involved both of us. Rather than "what was the name of your first pet," questions about specific changes between our lives: she asked me what tools I used to write with, and I asked her how the writing technology has changed during her life. We were both interested, and she was gobsmacked that I actually used to fill my ink pen from a bottle of ink. I was curious about how effective voice commands were. That moved on to the glitches involved in leaving messages with live people (oh, the stories of incompetent secretaries) -- which led to questions about what work was like for women in the last millennium.

As for questions you would most regret asking, what are thinking of? Beyond "any diseases common to our family?" that approach is very fraught. My daughter has always been interested, but I only occasionally want to talk about how I felt about my Mom's death, or what I thought about pictures of black boys hanging in trees, or about the time Grandma tried to have Grandpa committed to the looney bin (I know, I know, but that's what our family called it back then).

Note if you're a questionee: if gets too uncomfortable, you can always ask your young relative, "So what is the first time having sex like for kids now days?" "Do you worry a lot about STDs? Do you believe someone if they say they've been tested?" After all, you're curious, too.
posted by kestralwing at 1:17 AM on October 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

On rereading this thread, I realize my answer wasn't very straight.

Please think very carefully about what you want to know and why. Do you need to know family names or where people are buried or long ago gossip? If they haven't actually lost their memories, every old person I know, myself included, has a lot of pain and loss they've learned to live with. Be careful poking around.
posted by kestralwing at 1:23 AM on October 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I like knowing how people of other generations would live their lives differently had they been born today, so 'What would you do for a job if you were in your 20s now?' or 'How would you live your life differently if you could live it again starting now?' 'Which opportunities would you take advantage of?' 'If you could bring something back to modern society, what would you want to see the return of?' I also like sensory based questions but more 'How did it feel to be around your father/mother?' and 'Whose side of the family did you prefer spending time with?' Also 'What was your daily routine as a child/teenager/young adult'?

Sorry for the disorder. It all came at once.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:31 AM on October 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ask for old family recipes. My grandmother used a little of this, a little of that. I asked her to make some family favorites while I watched and measured and wrote everything down. I treasure those recipes now. They link past generations to the next generation.
posted by eleslie at 5:52 AM on October 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

These are the questions my mother gave to the women in her church group of volunteers (all elderly women, mostly Russian immigrants who had lived through the Revolution) to get them started with their life story, she then later had the stories put together into a book. The stories were all absolutely fascinating. Maybe these could be helpful:

  • Your name, when you were born and where?
  • Do you have siblings? How many and where is your place in the family (oldest, youngest etc)?
  • What is your earliest childhood memory?
  • What other childhood experiences do you remember, such as schools, friends, camp etc?
  • What were your teen years like and what was your first job and at what age?
  • Did you marry and have children?
  • What have been some of your interests and hobbies?
  • Have you volunteered? If so, what did you do?
  • What places have you lived, why did you move, and what were you doing there?
  • What have been your great joys and sorrows in life?
  • What is your life like at present?
  • What has been your spiritual journey?

  • posted by nanook at 10:26 AM on October 11, 2016

    - Tell me about your favorite Christmas (or appropriate religious holiday) as a child
    - Tell me about a gift you received that you have always remembered
    - How did you know that (Uncle Joe/Aunt Clara) was "the one"?
    - What would you do differently if you could go back and do it again?
    - How/when did you finally figure out who Santa Claus was?
    - Tell me about something you figured out how to do all by yourself
    posted by John Borrowman at 2:30 PM on October 11, 2016

    I tried to do this with my grandmother and she refused. Be cognizant that some relatives may not want to participate.
    posted by bendy at 4:49 PM on October 11, 2016

    I had luck using a service called Storyworth with my parents. They have a list of questions you can select from and they e-mail a question at intervals that you choose (once/week, twice/month, etc.). My parents responded by e-mail but I think the service might have a way of recording oral responses too. I liked this because my parents could write an answer to the question in their own time. We did it about twice a month until it kind of naturally petered out.

    These are some of the questions I asked them, some from Storyworth, some from other sources or my own invention:

    What story did your parents tell you about your birth?
    What do you remember about your childhood bedroom?
    Do you have any particularly vivid memories of your grandparents?
    What were your favorite toys as a child?
    What memories of food do you have from growing up? Were there any particular meals, sweets, or types of food that are evocative for you?
    What family traditions did you enjoy growing up?
    In what ways are you like your mom and dad? In what ways are you different?
    Describe the neighborhood where you grew up.
    Is there a historic event that you remember vividly?
    What inventions have had the biggest impact on your day-to-day life?
    What do you like most about your siblings? Has your relationship with your siblings changed over the years?
    Who was an influential adult in your life as a child or teen?
    What simple pleasures of life do you truly enjoy?
    What are your favorite possessions? Why?
    What's the best job you've ever had?
    What's the most beautiful place you've ever been to?
    What were you like when you were 20? (30, 40, etc.)
    How would you describe your political and social beliefs? Have they changed over time?
    How did you feel when your first child was born?
    What has been your life's greatest surprise?

    Here are some that I wanted to ask but decided not to because some of them were too much about my own issues and were maybe not appropriate for a recorded history and because some touched on issues I don't think my parents are ready to discuss:

    Do you believe that people can change? Why or why not?
    What are some choices you made about how to raise your children?
    What about having children didn't turn out the way you expected it?
    What advice do you wish you had taken from your parents?
    Is there something about me that you've always wanted to know but have never asked?
    Marriage: What were the best times? The most difficult times?
    Did you ever think of getting divorced?
    Do you think about dying? Are you scared?
    How do you imagine life after your death?
    Is there anything that you've never told me but want to tell me now?
    posted by megancita at 6:53 PM on October 11, 2016

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