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How to Interview Elderly Relatives for Family History

Interviewing elderly family members
Interviewing Elderly Relatives

For those of you who are blessed with living elderly relatives, you still have access to a treasure trove of memories, details, and more when it comes to your genealogy research. You can supplement all your online and other methods of research with interviews specifically geared toward these elderly relatives so you can gain valuable information. 

Introduction to Interviewing Elderly Relatives for Family History Research

Perhaps stories have been passed down, and you’ve already heard many of them. Yet, these stories may also invoke curiosity, adding more questions to what you would like to know and share with other family members. Interviewing your elderly relatives can provide you with pieces to a puzzle or answers to a mystery you encounter in your own research.

Why Interviewing is Key to Uncovering Family History

Today you have the benefit of being able to conduct much of your research online while also compiling important papers and documents, journals, or diaries directly from family members.

Yet, supplementing these with actual interviews with your relatives can add a whole new personal dimension and provide special insight into the emotions, traditions, cultures, and events throughout the span of their lifetimes. They can help you uncover details, discover surprises, and tie in history with your particular family.

More importantly, interviews with your elderly relatives lead to stories, and these stories make your research more personal. You can gain insight into all the names, dates, and events and establish a more thorough history of a family member’s lifetime experiences. You can also gain context surrounding historical eras first-hand.

Interviewing is key to uncovering family history because it can uncover key information or confirm what you have, such as the names, important dates, and locations, while also providing more detailed information. Another way interviewing helps is that it can provide a recording of oral histories, such as of a relative’s younger years, which can become a family treasure to future generations.

If your great-grandparents immigrated to America but are no longer here to tell you of their experiences, your living relatives may be able to provide clues that you can then research to gain a historical perspective. You may find a jumping-off point to refocus your research or enjoy the confirmation of what you’ve already found. The possibilities are limitless.

Using Storytelling to Elicit Memories

While you can ask specific questions and receive short, concise answers, such as your loved one’s age at marriage, encouraging storytelling can help to elicit memories. To learn more, ask conversational-type questions that draw your relative into telling that story. These are the types of interviews that often contain special details you might miss if you are unaware of what questions to ask. Plus, the stories provide a more personal touch to your research.

What Questions to Ask

The biggest step in your preparation for interviewing is knowing what questions to ask. Yet, the questions you prepare prior to the interview need only serve as a guide, a suggested structure in which to keep the conversation going. You’ll want to make them concise but also open-ended, prompting the interviewee to continue with any thought patterns or stories that come to mind.

Start with the basic biographical questions about such things as full names, places of birth, and the towns or cities they grew up in or moved to at some point in their life. You can also let them help confirm other relatives’ names and dates of marriage, death, or immigration. All of this will provide you with a timeline or chronology to confirm and build upon.

Additional Subjects you may want to ask about include:

  • Family traditions and customs

  • Holiday celebrations and locations

  • Cultural influences

  • Hometown descriptions

  • Childhood experiences

  • Historical events that occurred during their lifetime and how each one impacted the family

  • Family heirlooms, photos, or other items

To help with this last one, bring out family heirlooms or mementos and ask about them. These can be old photographs or documents which can spark more memories in your loved one. Find whatever you can, such as scrapbooks, family bibles, letters, or immigration documents to help you both focus on specific questions. You might also want to ask if there are any other family items that can provide more information or contain a family story not yet written down.


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