Great questions to ask your elders
December 21, 2021 10:01 AM   Subscribe

What questions would you ask of your elders about their life experiences? I purchased a Storyworth subscription for an older family member after reading about it here on AskMe. This service sends a question to someone every week, they answer it via email, and at the end of the year they receive a hardbound book of their stories. What custom questions should I add to the list?

The person I gifted this to really enjoys talking about their past, writing is one of their hobbies, and they have great stories, so I think this will be a well-received gift. I want to make sure the questions really appeal to them, though. I like a lot of the questions the service provides (examples here) but I'm hoping to write a few good questions of my own. I'd like to avoid hard questions that might be upsetting or traumatic to answer (e.g., "Why did you leave your faith?").

What things do you wish that you knew about your older family members? Do you have good prompts that elicit interesting memories or stories from people? If you've written your own Storyworth questions, I'd love to see some of them, too!
posted by twelve cent archie to Human Relations (21 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
What’s one thing that would surprise people to know about you?
posted by nathaole at 10:45 AM on December 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

I love hearing about how people met others -- whether it's their spouse, best friend, whomever.
posted by jabes at 10:45 AM on December 21, 2021

Best answer: Questions to get them started:

When did you get your first bank account? Why did you get it? How did they treat you?

When did you first realize that you were [ethnicity, gender, caste, nationality]?

When did you first realize that there are other countries, other than the one where you lived?

What color clothes did you wear when you were young? Did you get to choose the color?

When was the first time you got your own money to spend? What did you spend it on?

When was the first time you got to decide what to eat for a meal or a snack or a treat? Was it a special occasion? What did you choose?

How long did it take you to walk/ride/etc. to school each day when you were young? What did you see along the way? Did you go alone or with others?

Back when it was a lot harder to make long-distance phone calls, how did you stay in touch with distant family? Did you ever send a telegram?

Did your family subscribe to a newspaper? Did you read parts of it?

Did your family have a radio? What did they listen to?

When was the first time you got to go to a movie without your parents? What was it?
posted by brainwane at 10:51 AM on December 21, 2021 [10 favorites]

What is something unusual that you've owned, and what was the story behind it? (Among my late father's effects, I found the deed to an airplane. I have zero clue.)
posted by champers at 10:59 AM on December 21, 2021 [4 favorites]

I would want to know about their experience of specific events. Depending on the age, might include the moon landing, JFK's assassination (this was a salient memory for my Catholic grandparents), the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, etc.
posted by quadrilaterals at 11:01 AM on December 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What about something like "Do you have any good stories about other members of the family?" Some of my grandparents' best stories were about Aunt Helen who was...a character.
posted by an octopus IRL at 11:08 AM on December 21, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I have been thinking recently about questions I wish I had asked my grandmother. She was born around 1905 in Manhattan. Here are a couple that you might be able to adapt to your family.

Did your grandmother (father, etc) tell you stories about their childhood? Did they ever talk about their parents? What did they tell you?

What songs did your parents sing to you when they put you to bed? Did you sing to my mother when you put her to bed?

Did you have to help out with chores around the house?

Tell me a story about my mother I don't know. Tell me a story about my uncle as a child. What was he like?

Who were the best man and maid of honor at your wedding?

How did you meet my grandfather? Did your parents approve of the match?

Do you remember when the George Washington Bridge was built? Was everyone very excited?

Do you remember crossing the Hudson by Ferry?

Do you remember the first time you crossed the George Washington Bridge?
posted by Winnie the Proust at 11:09 AM on December 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's another one:

Tell me about one memorable day from your childhood. What happened? Why do you remember that day?
posted by Winnie the Proust at 12:09 PM on December 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

What's the best meal you've ever eaten? What was your favorite article of clothing?
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:31 PM on December 21, 2021

Best answer: Can you walk me through your childhood home, from front door to outhouse?
What was in your first pay-packet?
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:44 PM on December 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Who was your favorite relative growing up, and why? (I got some amazing answers to this from my mom once and found out a whooole lot about my mom's fam.)
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:52 PM on December 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?

What's your advice for future generations?
posted by jessica fletcher did it at 1:01 PM on December 21, 2021

Best answer: What got invented during your lifetime that you now can’t imagine living without?

What is the worst / most harmful thing that got invented, that you wish had never been invented?

How do you think people, in general, have changed during your lifetime?

What is one concrete thing that existed when you were young and doesn’t exist anymore, that you really miss?

What’s the best single piece of advice anyone ever gave you?

What’s the strangest experience you’ve ever had?

What is the single moment in your life, in which you are most proud of how you behaved?

If you could go back and give your teenage self one important piece of life advice, what would it be?

When you look back on your life, what is the thing that surprises you most?

If you could go back in time and reassure yourself about something that you used to spend a lot of time worrying about, what would it be?
posted by Susan PG at 1:02 PM on December 21, 2021

Tell me some funny stories or significant/cherished memories you have that you may think people wouldn't be interested in hearing.
posted by slkinsey at 1:43 PM on December 21, 2021

Best answer: These are 25 questions Frank Warren from Postsecret posted a while back, tho I can’t remember where he got them from, sorry.

Can you tell me about your best friend when you were a kid and one of your adventures.

What is the oldest story you know about our ancestors?

Is there something about me that you have always wanted to know but have never asked?

Can you describe a favorite memory about a family member?

If this was to be our very last conversation, is there anything you would want to say to me?

Do you have a favorite snack, song, television show, recipe, comedy?

What is your first memory?

Did you ever get into trouble as a kid? What happened?

If there was a biography of you, how would you want to be described?

What choice are you thankful that you did not make?

What is the best advice you remember from your father?

Is there anything you wish you had said to someone but didn’t have the chance?

Can you teach me something?

What is something you would like me to ask you?”

What do you wish you would have spent less time worrying about?

What is something you deliberately did not tell me as a child and why?

What is the best part of your day? What makes you feel most alive?

What is the last thing you changed your mind about?

What things helped you get through a difficult time in your life?

Over the course of your life what trip or place was most special? Why?

What would you like to re-experience again because you did not appreciate it enough the first time?

Can you tell me something about yourself that I don’t know that you think would surprise, shock or delight me?

What habits served you the most through life?

What is the best mistake you have made, and why?

What do you hope my siblings and I have learned from you?

How are you doing right now? Is there anything on your mind right now that you’d like to talk about?

posted by ClarissaWAM at 2:00 PM on December 21, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I have a collection of oral history from my grandmother (born in the 19-teens) and one of the things I enjoyed the most about it was her talking about the things she'd do when she was a kid. Like what they did for fun in the winter, or how they went to school and back, or who was the oldest person SHE could remember, or if she remembered certain technological milestones like the family's first car or when they first got a television.
posted by jessamyn at 2:29 PM on December 21, 2021

I would just want them to talk about the multitude of old photos I will inherit. Who is in the photo? Where was it taken? When? A positive side-effect will be the conversations and remembrances that will be triggered.

(I have hundreds of old photos handed down to me, and no one to ask about them. Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents are all gone.)
posted by Thorzdad at 4:08 PM on December 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

If you are willing, share with me a decision you made that you greatly regretted, but then later came to realize was actually the correct decision.
posted by forthright at 5:03 PM on December 21, 2021

The things they did, that I never knew of until their funerals.

My dad, (who was 50 when I was born in 1963), apparently was leading the fight against the Pendergast machine in Kansas City in like, the 1930s. What?

My mom was the first woman City of Kansas City Camp Director.

They never mentioned these facts about their lives. Maybe why one of my favorite lines with my children is: Back when I was a little boy, this is what happened...

Has become a "Dad Line", but, I shrug and tell the story anyway. No matter how many times I've told it before.
posted by Windopaene at 5:10 PM on December 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What did your (mom / dad / sibling / etc) do when they were in a good mood?

What smells do you remember from childhood?

What naughty thing did you get caught doing?

What was a time a family member came to your rescue?

What are some of the darnedest things that the toddlers and little kids have said in our family?

What was your childhood comfort food?

What were weekends like when you were a kid?

Did you and your siblings have rivalries?

What do you remember about politics or the politicians you who were active when you were young?

What were your childhood chores?

What were your childhood treats?

Memorable story from: elementary school? High school? Post secondary? First job?

What were some of the first memorable things you bought with your own money?

What were your childbirth experiences like? (Possibly interesting to ask child-free elders too, as they may have been home when their siblings were born)

What was Grandma / Grandpa’s favourite story?

What were parties like when you were a kid / teen?

What childhood gifts do you remember most?

Tell me about your first job / first car / beloved childhood pet / high school sweetheart / etc

What are your top three pieces of weird advice?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:38 PM on December 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

I would love to know who taught my grandma to make her coleslaw.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 6:00 AM on December 22, 2021

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