How to Conduct an Oral History Interview
Your senior loved one may have treasures of memories and experiences that can serve as a great source of wisdom, history, and joy that can enrich your entire family. However, the hustle and bustle of daily life can sometimes prevent you from truly enjoying and remembering these priceless stories and narratives.
An oral history interview is a great way to capture the magic of your loved one’s past and bridge generational gaps. Conducting an oral history interview may seem like a complicated and time-consuming project, but all you need is a few minutes of your loved one’s time, a list of questions, and a recording device—possibly your smartphone—to get started.
Why Are Oral Histories Important?
Many elderly folks have a strong desire to share their stories but lack an outlet or audience willing to listen. Setting aside time to record a historical interview with your loved one will provide powerful insights into their life and let them know their experiences are valued. If you are willing to listen, you will likely find your loved one will be thrilled to share their life stories with you.
Choose the Right Place and Time
Select a time when your senior is comfortable and relaxed in an environment that is private and free of distractions. Start with a 10- or 15-minute session at first and increase to longer sessions if they are receptive.
Monitor your loved one throughout the interview. Lengthy periods of talking can be physically or cognitively taxing for some seniors.
What to Ask During an Oral History Interview With Your Senior
Compile questions on a specific topic, period, or memory. Pose a few broad questions in advance to give your loved one time to think about how they would like to answer before the interview.
Approach the interview like a casual conversation. Ask follow-up questions as needed to clarify details or explore responses in more detail.
Here is a list of questions you can use to guide your discussions:
- How was your name chosen?
- Do you recall your earliest memory? What was it?
- What were things like when you were growing up?
- What are your most fond memories of childhood?
- What kind of house did you grow up in?
- What is your favorite memory as a child?
- What chore did you hate the most as a child?
- Which holiday traditions do you remember most from childhood?
- What were your favorite toys?
- What were the most memorable fads during your youth?
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
- What was your first job?
- Did you argue with your parents much as a teenager? Over what?
- Where did you and your friends hang out?
- Did you enjoy school? What was it like?
- Did you receive any rewards for your school achievements?
- How many years of school did you complete and where?
- Do you wish you could change anything about your educational experiences?
- What do you know about your family’s heritage?
- What do you remember most about your grandparents/great-grandparents?
- What do you remember most about the oldest person in your family when you were a child?
- What lessons did you learn from your father?
- What lessons did you learn from your mother?
- Which parent are you most like and why?
Marriage and Family
- At what age did you start dating?
- How did you meet your spouse? What was the first date like?
- What was your first impression of your spouse?
- What was your wedding ceremony like?
- Where did you go on your honeymoon?
- Any advice about marriage?
- What is the most challenging thing about raising children?
- What is the best thing about being a parent?
- How would you like to pass your faith to your children/grandchildren?
- What was your proudest moment as a parent?
- Which of your children is most like you?
- How did you choose your career as an adult?
- What did you like most about your career?
- What did you like least about your job?
- What would you change about your career?
- Did you serve in the military? What was it like?
- What advice would you give about choosing a career?
Hobbies and Activities
- What are your favorite types of books to read?
- What have been your favorite activities as an adult?
- Where have you traveled?
- What has been your favorite trip?
- How did social changes impact your life?
- What do you consider to be the most important inventions during your childhood? Lifetime?
- How has the world changed throughout your life?
- What was the most important historical event in your life?
- In what ways has the world changed since you were young?
- What have you always wanted to do but have yet to do?
- What are your proudest moments?
- When have you been the most frightened?
- What would you change in your past if you had the power?
- What has provided you the greatest satisfaction?
- What was the most exciting day of your life?
- What is the main thing you’d like people to remember about you?
- Does the idea of death frighten you? Why or why not?
- Which life event hurt you the most?
- Which life event strengthened you the most?
- What were some of the hardest life decisions you had to make?
- Who had the most positive influence in your life?
- What major health problems did you experience?
- What is your perspective on money?
- What would you consider to be your greatest talent?
- What is your greatest weakness?
- What is the most important object you own and why?
- What could you not live without in your life?
- What would be one piece of wisdom you would like to pass on to your descendants?
- How would you like to be remembered by your family?
Oral History and Other Activities For Your Senior
You can also use the oral history interview as a springboard for other ways to engage with your senior.
Consider reviving a forgotten hobby, taking a trip to a favorite destination, making a scrapbook, or conducting a research project on your family’s history.
An oral history requires an investment of time from you and your loved one, but you will not regret it. You will also have a recording of their voice to cherish forever. You could transcribe their tales into a book to share with them and other family members as a gift.
Professional In-Home Support Can Assist
If your loved one enjoys reminiscing and sharing stories, a compassionate Visiting Angels caregiver can provide companionship and an attentive ear when you or other family members can’t be there. Learn more about Visiting Angels companion care services by contacting your local Visiting Angels agency to set up a free consultation.