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Tips For Interviewing Elderly Relatives When Researching Your Family History

Updated on June 20, 2016
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Linda lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia. She has been researching her family history for over 40 years.

For every thing there is a season and for many of our aging relatives, it is the season where memories have either faded or, vanished.

Do you remember hearing that "time waits for no one?" It's true. If you keep putting off those interviews of your aging relatives, you're going to miss the window of opportunity. I know this from personal experience. Oh what I would give to have one more chance to talk to some of my relatives.

There is no time like the present and I've learned a few tricks for getting the most from an interview of an elderly family member. If you're new to genealogy, you might find them useful too.

Interview Opportunities

An interview doesn't require a scheduled appointment or a commitment of hours on end, recording the ramblings of your relative. A recorded, planned interview is a great resource but there are some less intimidating methods for getting the same information, if you take the time. If your elder relative doesn't want to be recorded, get yourself a nice journal to document the interview. Not only will it help keep your interview material organized but your journal will become a family treasure that you can pass on to the next generation.

Ask a silly question

Getting your grandma or uncle to tell you a story is easy, much easier than asking them to give you the social security number or military history of Uncle Joe. Even when you think they don't enjoy telling stories, most older people can't resist bragging on themselves or ragging on their siblings. Your job is to pay serious attention. No one wants to tell stories to a disinterested listener. There are some real gold nuggets in most of the stories so listen carefully and take notes. So, how do you get them started? Just ask a question. A curious question at a family gathering will get them going and may even start a lively discussion among several relatives.

I recently went to my parents home to fix a problem with their computer and while I was waiting for a reboot, I asked my Dad what street he lived on as a boy. Now, I knew the answer and had it well documented in my data. But he had forgotten that and he started telling me about the neighborhood, the neighbors, and related a story of how he and two other boys challenged each other to join the Navy when work was hard to come by. My Dad, being a loyalist at heart, went right on down to the recruiting office and signed up. The other boys did not and when my Dad returned after four years of service, the other two were just leaving. They had spent four years struggling to survive, losing one job after another while my Dad had gotten an education and traveled the world in the submarine service. It was a story I had never heard but the golden nugget was this. From that one conversation I was able to grab his dates of service and have since requested copies of his service records.

Family Bible

Almost every family has a bible where they stash odd documents or have recorded births or marriages. Ask ! Remember though, it's a family treasure so handle it with care and ask, ask, ask, before you remove anything.

Photo Albums

Be on the lookout for those photo collections lying around the house. Pick it up and find a photo of someone you don't know and ask who they are. You won't believe the results. You'll not only hear who they are, but where they lived, where they worked, who they married, etc.

A Single Photograph

Do you have a photograph of an ancestor in your possession? It doesn't matter who it is; just take it with you to any family gathering. Pass it around and ask one of those silly questions. Everyone will have a story but beware! The stories may not all be the same or accurate. Your job as the researcher and family historian will be to prove the story through consistency or through resources we'll discuss at another time.

Be A Responsible Historian

Always keep in mind that every time a story is told, it changes a little. So always try to verify a story you've been told with another relative or through some of the resources you'll be learning about later. Return anything you borrow and take good care of it while you have it. Be aware that once it gets out that you are collecting the family history, some will think you are the authority. Never claim that title unless you have proof of your data. Even though I have been working on my family for a long, long time, when someone asks for information, I always tell them, some of it is proven, some of it is not. And I always ask them to provide corrections if they find bad data. After all, I'm only documenting this history, not writing it.

© 2012 Linda Crist, All rights reserved.

Read more of my hubs here.


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  • collegatariat profile image

    collegatariat 5 years ago

    What a lovely hub! My paternal grandfather was a Colonel in the air corp during WWII, but he died before I was born so I never got to meet him... realizing how much I've missed out on has made me appreciate the things I can learn from the relatives who are living. It's truly remarkable how a simple story or picture can tell you so much about an era that wasn't too long ago but seems so far away. Thanks for writing this!

  • thebookmom profile image

    thebookmom 5 years ago from Nebraska

    This is an outstanding hub! We have just started a heritage project for 4h and we will use your suggestions. I especially like asking a silly question and thinking about verifying the stories you hear. Great work!