5 ways to capture the memories of an aging senior

April 9, 2020

I was in high school when my beloved grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had lived a very full life, so my mom suggested we record him sharing memories while he was still feeling good.

We sat together in his breakfast room with a video camera and interviewed him. We laughed as he shared the story behind the incorrect name on his birth certificate and regaled us with tales of being stationed in the Philippines for World Word II. I grew up five minutes from him, but I realized there were so many things I never knew about his life. I now understood why he spent much of his retirement at the genealogy library shuffling through microfiche. When he passed, that recording became a treasure, and I too got hooked on capturing family history.

When my dad was nearing 70, I realized I needed to interview him while I could. In 2015, on a visit home, I videotaped an interview with my dad and learned more about his childhood, my deceased grandparent and my great-grandparents’ immigration to America. Two years later, my dad died unexpectedly following a brief illness. I was beyond grateful to have not only captured his stories before they were lost, but also to have a way to see and hear him anytime. 

Whether you’re a professional caregiver or a family caregiver of an aging senior, here are ways to capture loved one’s stories while they’re still able to share them. Whatever strategy you choose, we’ll also explain how this process can benefit elders. 

Ways to capture memories

Have an in-person interview

When Katherine Filaseta, a filmmaker in New York City, was on a family vacation and noticed her grandmother beginning to struggle with her memory, she realized she needed to record her stories quickly. But by the time she was able to get to her home state with a camera, her grandmother’s memory problems were much worse, though she captured what she could. 

“She had progressed really far and only had about five of the same stories, but she was really happy to tell this and really wanted to participate,” Filaseta says. “She really wanted her memories to be preserved.” 

If you want to do this but don’t have a video camera or audio recorder, you can use your smartphone’s camera or audio recording app. It helps to come prepared with a list of questions, such as asking about their childhood, what their parents were like, favorite family trips, how they met their spouse, etc.

Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be planned or formal. 

Ask caregivers or other family members to record loved ones

For those who live far away but are worried a phone call would be too difficult for the senior, ask if either their caregiver, or a family member who lives locally, would do it for you. You can give them a list of questions and have them record audio or video for you.

When Filaseta went back to New York City, she had her family members at home record and send her videos of her grandmother. She had them do this to give her updates, but they also turned on the camera whenever her grandmother shared a memory. Filaseta ended up using some of this footage in her documentary, but she also said that when her grandmother passed, these were helpful for her family members in their grieving process. Some of the footage was also played at her funeral, and Filaseta says it was powerful for the guests to see and hear her. 

Record a phone call

If your loved one lives far away, don’t let that stop you — you can ask them questions over a phone call and record the call. There are plenty of apps you can use to record the conversation; just make sure you ask permission to record if you’re in a state that requires this by law (the Digital Media Law project lists states that have these rules). 

Use StoryWorth 

If your loved one enjoys writing and uses email, consider using StoryWorth to collect memories. This paid service ($99) sends them questions via email every week for a year, which they can answer in an email reply. As the purchaser, you can select from hundreds of questions or write your own. If you’ve chosen one your loved one isn’t comfortable answering, they can switch.

You’ll receive their answers via email and can also access them online, and you can add other family members. At the end of the year, the stories are compiled and sent to you in a bound book. My mom is a writer, so she’s really enjoyed telling her stories in this format. It’s also a treat to receive the weekly emails regaling me with tales of her life, many of which I’d never heard. Filaseta says her grandfather is also currently doing StoryWorth to capture his memories. 

Hire someone to help

If you don’t have time to interview the elder or aren’t savvy with technology, you could hire someone to interview them in the format of your choice. Amy Fuchs is a social worker, former caregiver and independent elder care consultant through her business the Elder Expert LLC in Saddle River, New Jersey. She says her family hired a professional writer to collect her 77-year-old father-in-law’s memories and turn them into a written memoir for his family.

“Our intention wasn’t to create a publishable novel; it’s just for the process of life review and to give him an opportunity while his mind is still intact to prompt those memories,” Fuchs says. “He’s an immigrant, so he has a very rich history, and it’s important for him, us and the grandkids to have the opportunity to hear about it.” If you don’t know where to start, the service MemoryWell offers a storytelling platform for seniors that uses professional writers. It’s free to create your own timeline for the senior, but if you want to pay to have their story written, plans for individual families currently start at $249. 

How reflection can benefit seniors

Capturing memories can help you learn about your family history and provide a source of comfort when the person is gone. But the process can also benefit the senior you’re interviewing. “It is believed that older adults benefit from engaging in ‘life review,’ which can occur narratively or pictorially,” says Julie Brody Magid, clinical director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. “Highlighting past achievements, relationships and outstanding experiences such as travel and family milestones is often very positive and can engender feelings of accomplishment and closure.”

Fuchs says she’s seen this in her father-in-law as he has shared his memories and stories. “That process in and of itself is cathartic and makes him think about things he hasn’t thought about in a while and process and come to terms with his history and past,” she says. Fuchs believes it has the potential to help those near the end of their lives “come to terms with things that were stressful and emotional and see it from a different perspective or see that everything happens for a reason.”

Even though her grandmother was struggling with memory and speech by the time they did an interview, Filaseta says it was still a positive experience for her. “She absolutely enjoyed it; she was really proud of so many things she’d done,” she said. “She was a really independent woman before those were allowed to exist … It was interesting finding out what memories she held onto and what she was most proud of in her life, and I think she really enjoyed sharing that with us.” 

Tips for capturing memories from seniors

Depending on someone’s age and cognitive abilities, the process of collecting memories can look very different. Here are a few ways to encourage success. 

Act early

While it’s absolutely possible to record memories from loved ones suffering from dementia, cognitive issues do make it harder to access memories. If you have elder family members who haven’t yet developed any memory issues, you may want to start recording their stories while they can still remember everything clearly.  “Once your loved one has dementia, it can be very difficult to access an accurate history,” Fuchs says. “I try to reach out to those without dementia and get it written down as accurately as possible,” she explains. 

Create a conducive environment

For optimal success, create a safe space where the senior will feel good and relaxed, Fuchs suggests, especially for those with memory issues. “Play some music from their generation or maybe classical, something that will help calm their nervous system.”

Cater to their mood and mindset

If you’re sitting down with a senior, especially one with dementia, pay close attention to where their mindset is before you start asking questions, Fuchs recommends. “If they’re in an anxious state, I would not approach it, but if they’re in a positive, uplifted mood, that’s better,” she says. 

If your loved one shows resistance to answering a question, or if talking about something seems to trigger anxiety, don’t push it, Fuchs says. “I think your goal should be keeping someone as emotionally stable as possible,” she says. “Be mindful of what might be a positive memory and what might be a painful memory.” 

Keep it about them

While capturing family history may be important to you and family members, the interview process can be problematic if not done in a therapeutic way, Fuchs says. “You have to weigh the pros and cons of getting information; you should be thinking what’s best for the senior and not future generations,” she explains.

Aim to make it a positive, enjoyable experience for the elder. “I would suggest making sure that it does not feel like a test for people with memory disorders, but rather that this exercise is done collaboratively with the family with everyone offering information to fill in the blanks,” Brody Magid says.

“In my own experience, I had a grandmother with dementia who diminished over time, but she consistently loved reviewing a photo book with some written annotations from different intervals in her past,” she recalls. “It was truly her joy, even when she could not recall all of the details and people on her own.” 

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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