How to Capture Elderly Wisdom
My dad was known for being a great storyteller. He had a quick wit, a wry sense of humor and plenty of rad real life experiences to draw from. He grew up in Southern California during Hollywood's heyday, and carved out a pretty interesting career for himself as a tour manager for a number of rock icons, including The Doors, Deep Purple and Ringo Starr of the Beatles, to name a few. He had a zest for life and traveled the world many times over, collecting memories and experiences as he went. His passport was his most treasured possession in life—filled to the brim with stamps from far off and exotic places around the globe. He had a real knack for telling engaging stories about the people and places he experienced that would rival those found in any history book or biography.
I remember so clearly the day we visited his doctor and got the news. Stage 4 lung cancer. Terminal. Six months to a year. When you receive a diagnosis like that, it's difficult to put into words the way it changes your perspective of life—both of what a gift it is and how fragile it can be.
One of the first things I remember thinking after my dad’s diagnosis was that I wanted to find a way to capture his stories. I decided to put together an interview of sorts, and ask him questions about his life and experiences. I’m grateful to have had the chance to have that conversation with him before he passed. Because of it, I learned things about him that I never knew and was also able to capture details of his life that otherwise might have escaped me.
About a year ago I stumbled on The Listening Ear Project. This amazing platform was founded by Katie Cheeseman and is devoted to capturing wisdom and stories from the elderly. Drawing from my own experience, I felt an immediate connection to the work Katie is doing. I asked her to share why she thinks it’s important to interview aging relatives.
She said, “We have so much to learn from them. These people have lived such full, rich and even difficult lives, but with that comes knowledge, experience and wisdom. A few years from now, we won't have any firsthand stories from those who experienced The Great Depression or WWII. We need to take advantage of our time with them and learn/document as much as we can, while we have the chance.” I couldn’t agree more.
The beauty of taking the time to interview our elderly family and friends is that we can learn lessons and gain a new perspective from their experience. In addition, these conversations serve as a legacy for them to leave behind and a treasured time capsule of sorts for generations to come.
If you’re thinking right now about people in your life who you could sit down and interview, I want to encourage you to take the next step and do it. All you need is a device to record either video or sound (your smartphone will work perfectly), a list of questions to ask and a listening ear.
To help you get started, Katie shared a few of her best tips to ensure your interview goes smoothly:
Tip #1: Keep it casual. When you approach them about the interview, make it casual so you don't overwhelm them. Katie suggests not even using the word "interview." Instead, say something like, "I just want to ask you some questions about your life to document our family history”. That will be a lot less overwhelming for them and help ensure you get a "yes."
Tip #2: Ease into it. Start off with basic questions (where were you born? what was your childhood like?) and eventually dive into more personal questions (what is something difficult that you went through?) It usually takes a bit for them to open up and feel comfortable answering vulnerable questions. We have a list of specific questions you can ask here.
Tip #3: Go with the flow. Don't stress about getting to every question on your list. Instead, focus on having a thoughtful conversation. Katie says she’s found that those are the ones that usually yield the best results.
Tip #4: Don’t be nervous or intimidated. Oftentimes this generation is lonely, and will be thrilled to have someone who will sit and listen to them. So don’t put too much pressure on yourself . . . just talk to them as a friend.
Life is an incredible teacher and there is so much we can learn from one another. Each and every one of us has a unique story to offer the world, with invaluable lessons and insight to share. Take time to think about the people in your life who have inspired you and find ways to capture their stories. Our hope is that with the help of these tips you’ll be well on your way.
Have a question about tips on interviewing the elderly or have experience doing it yourself? We’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below so we can all learn from one another.
If you want to see cute old people and hear rad stories, follow along with Katie’s work on Instagram @thelisteningearproject or at thelisteningearproject.com.