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How family historians can encourage the elderly to talk about the past

The problem

Unfortunately, visits with some elderly people can drag because it is difficult to know what they would and could enjoy talking about. This was certainly my experience with my mother towards the end of her life and with other elderly relatives on duty visits or when trying to extract information for family history purposes. Others have reported similar experiences.

talking to an elderly person

Use of photographs to bring old memories to the surface

I and others who were researching our genealogy and family history, found that an excellent way to stimulate elderly relatives into talking about their past was through old family photos and photos of locations that they once knew. Take along a collection - you'll see the importance of the collection as you read on.

Show him or her a photo and say something like, "I thought you might like to see this".

If you are lucky, this alone will generate a flood of reminiscences and be the start of avid conversation.

However, depending on the infirmity of the elderly person, it is more likely that he or she will need time to get his or her mind in focus for responding and will mumble something like, "Don't remember". This is where our tried and tested technique comes in and it is why you need a collection of photos rather than a single one.

The technique

Wait awhile, keeping the first photo in view. Do not rush. If the individual does start reacting, just nod encouragingly and wait for more information to come.

If there is no reaction, put the photo at the back of the 'pack' and go on to the next one. Take your time and keep repeating the process.

As the individual get his or her mind in focus, reactions may start coming, but if not, here is the somewhat surprising and important part of the technique and why it is important to have a collection of photos:

Go through the whole process again with the same collection of photos. Our experience is that the individual may well start responding with more details even though there was no reaction at all first time round!

Why photos on a tablet or laptop work better than printed photos

The main problem with photos, particularly old ones, is that they tend to be too small to be examined closely by anyone with failing eyesight, and the light may not be good anyway. So there is significant value in having the photos as images on a tablet or portable computer. The images can be made full-screen, and computers and laptops have their own light.

I digitised so many photos for this purpose that they were my stimulus for my first website on my family history (now removed for privacy reasons).

But you may not have suitable digitised photos. That is where this website can help. Read on ...

How this website can help

The website is packed with recollections from ordinary people who lived in the early-mid 20th century, and it contains their photographs as well as photographs from museums. It thus relates to times when the elderly person was living his or her life to the full. So there is no need to use your own photographs.

Where to start? Well, it will be best if you know something about the elderly person's life. Did they, they parents or friends, for example, ever live in an old Victorian house or a 1930s/40s suburban house; were they air raid wardens on in the Home Guard in the Second World War; did they use air raid shelters or gas masks; or cook with old kitchen utensils; or watch their mothers do the weekly wash; or travel by steam train? For more ideas have a look at the top menu of the website; each menu item enlarges on tap/click to show a collection of pages. Or use the search box to see if something you particularly want is illustrated or discussed somewhere.

The quizzes - see the top menu - can also be a quick and effective way in.

Stimuli for mild dementia sufferers

A TV programme reported that 'mini rooms' of furnishings from a few decades ago had been bought by the NHS for use with dementia sufferers. The idea was that as dementia sufferers' long-term memories are better than their short-term ones, the 'rooms' would stimulate them in some way. So if a 'room', then why not pictures? This website is packed with pictures from a few decades ago. Furthermore it is available without charge anywhere where there is internet access.

Using the website with elderly people as described here is tried and tested for generating information on family history and for stimulating elderly relatives. Its use with dementia sufferers is, as yet, only a plausible idea. So if you do try using the website with someone with mild dementia, I would be grateful for your reactions.

Good luck!

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