Tell Me a Story

Help your parent give the gift of legacy.

Looking for something special to give mom or dad this holiday season? Something you won’t find buried in the basement next to Big Mouth Billy Bass?

This year, help your parent give the gift of legacy. 

Make time between the food and festivities to find a quiet, comfortable spot. Ask mom or dad to tell you stories about their life — and use your smartphone to capture the answers. 

Here’s why…

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

We’re all trying to make sense of our lives. But for older adults, this fundamental human desire becomes an essential psychological task, according to geriatric psychology expert David Solie:

“Older adults are engaged in the most difficult growth phase of their life. They are struggling to preserve control in a world where control is receding on all sides. At the same time, they are being swept up by the currents of life review, sorting and ranking the people and events that define who they have become and how they will be remembered.”

The act of talking with your parent about their life is more than a factual recounting of names, relationships, events, and dates. It creates narrative, connections, meaning, and insight. 

“There are unexpected discoveries, things you never saw coming, to be had in the actual telling of stories out loud,” writes Solie:

“… telling out loud…helps our aging parents discover… hidden truths and forgotten strengths. It doesn’t matter how well they know the details of familiar stories or how often they have been repeated… these ‘aha moments’ only occur in the actual telling of the story…”

Keep it Simple, Scorsese!

Try not to make this more complicated than it needs to be. Just because today’s smartphones and digital editing apps make it possible to indulge your inner Ken Burns doesn’t mean you should. 

You can always ramp up production values in additional sessions, but start small and keep things simple. Success is making it easy for mom to tell her stories and making it easy to record them.

Practice with your smartphone. Invest in an inexpensive tripod. Ask your YouTube and Tik-Tok savvy siblings, friends or kids for advice. 

Too much of a hassle? No worries. There are more than a few apps for that. Check out StoryCatcher for iPhone. Or StoryCorps, a free audio app that works on iOS and Android phones.

Here are some more tips that will help:

Give dad a heads up before your visit. Let him know you want to talk so he doesn’t feel ambushed. This is a conversation, not an interrogation.

Start with open-ended questions to avoid yes or no answers and let your parent dictate where the conversation goes. 

Ask follow up questions. Phrases like “Tell me more…” or “Tell me about…” are classic “tell me a story” cues. Associative memory is powerful. If dad wants to go deep about a favorite childhood toy, go deep. That’s where the good stuff is waiting to be discovered.

Use photos to prime the memory pump. Every picture tells a story (don’t it?) — but it helps when mom or dad tells you what that story is. Going through photo albums can be a great way to structure your conversation and spark insights. (Make sure to capture an image of the photo for reference.)

Take breaks. This activity can be joyous and invigorating for mom. It can also conjure intense emotions. Stay tuned into your parent’s energy level. Chunking the session into questions focused around specific time periods or themes can help create structure and momentum.

A Gift That Keeps Giving

Helping your parent make sense of their legacy and tell their story is a gift you can give them. Sharing those memories and insights is a gift your parent gives you.

And it’s a gift, writes Solie, that keeps giving:

“Nothing you do for them will bring more joy and comfort to [you] than recalling the stories you took the time to hear from your aging parents…”

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Thanks for caring,

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