“Tell me a story.” This simple request often comes from small children who want to postpone bedtime for as long as possible. It may come from a middle school English teacher or a college professor who is encouraging students to exercise their creative muscles. Storytelling is the ultimate historical record, predating modern-day printing operations. Family histories are rich with stories of relatives who came to the states via the Mayflower or Ellis Island. Holiday gatherings become reminiscence sessions where siblings recall their childhood antics or learn about their own parents’ escapades.

Storytelling is a powerful tool, both for preserving important family history and empowering the storytellers, who benefit from the process. Elderly relatives may enjoy sharing their tales, and their relatives receive a gift that can’t be bought at the local department store. Storytelling has additional benefits – it can stimulate the memory and improve articulation and self-esteem.

During the holiday season, we encourage families to carve out time to hear and record their family stories. Use the tips below to begin a conversation that someday you will repeat to your own children, as you continue to enrich the family history and ensure that each generation’s legacies are passed along.

Tell me about it

Some seniors need no encouragement when it comes to telling stories. If families are lucky, they have a grandparent who happily launches into the tale of how he met his beloved bride when he visited the church where she sang in the choir. Others may need a little prompting, and a simple “tell me about” question can jump start the conversation:

  • Tell me about your elementary school.
  • Tell me about your grandparents.
  • Tell me what you did for fun when you were my age.
  • Tell me about your favorite pet.
  • Tell me about your favorite meal that your own mother prepared.

Check with other relatives and friends

You may have had your parent or grandparent for your entire life, but they had their own lives long before you made your debut. Reach out to other relatives and friends to share their own stories, which you can then pose as questions – “Hey Grandma, Uncle Chuck told me he once tried to hide a kitten in his room. What did you think when you heard it mew?”

Pull out the photo albums

Remember the days before digital storage, when people tucked black-and-white photos carefully into the pages of a photo album? Find those photos and let them inspire the conversation. You may discover that Aunt Clara ran away with the circus when she was a young teen, or that Grandpa was best friends with someone famous. Look at the wedding pictures and find out who was in the wedding party. These were important friends and family members. Now is the time to discover why they played such an important role in the Big Day. You can assign younger members the task of finding some of these folks on social media and encouraging your loved one to reach out for an update.

Keep a record

Be ready to take lots of notes while your loved one is talking. If you’re not much of a note taker, put your smart phone to work. (Make sure first that you have enough memory available.) This is another great time to enlist the younger family members who may have a better grasp on technology and can ensure the phone doesn’t stop recording in the middle of an important memory.

Be patient. Your elderly relative may have memory lapses, or they may tell stories that are inconsistent with each other. Even if the story isn’t completely accurate, you’re hearing the version that is accurate in the storyteller’s brains, and that is important, too. Ask questions as needed. A simple “Tell me more” can yield another layer of information to an already compelling recollection.

Stories are family legacies. This year, when the plates are empty and the hearts are full, consider setting aside a time to learn more about the family events that led to today.