two people talking

Caregiving Project: Family History

If a picture can say a thousand things, then a human voice can launch a thousand memories. In another project we discussed creating memory books full of pictures, letters, document and drawings. In this project, we tackle creating memories based on voices and life experiences. Let’s get creating!

Have Voice Will Remember

In a Psychology Today article, neurology research confirmed that our brains do record select moments in our lives in full technicolor and Dolby sound. These episodic memories contain more than a sense of location or visual flashes of people and colors. They store scents, textures and sounds. Episodic memory is an album that stores key memories in 3D. It’s difficult to physically recreate a scent or texture but we can do something with sound. Here’s a project that a family caregiver can do with their loved ones.

Whether you record audio only or both video and audio, the important thing is to capture a loved one’s voice. You may have a picture of your father holding you as a newborn. But do you have a recording or video of your father speaking? Do you remember your mother singing a lullaby? How about the infectious laughter of your brother or sister?

I wish I had thought of this when my grandparents were alive.  They both lived through the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II. My grandfather in particular would have been hilarious and entertaining.

But history isn’t confined to the past and dusty textbooks. Do you realize that we are living history every day? Go ahead and make your own bit of history come alive.

Get Inspired

You can do a video combining still pictures and some video. A loved one can speak about their family origins and history. Or they can sing or recite poetry.

Below are some examples to get the creative juices going. Each of these videos were created with family history in mind but approached from different angles.

This vlog chronicles uncovering a treasure trove of WW2 era letters and artifacts which leads to a veteran reading his own letters.

The Ruggiero Family combined family history and a time capsule format.

Do a multimedia web page describing a person’s life from the very beginning. Use anecdotes, postcards, clippings, anything really to help tell the story like in this wonderful and nostalgic page.

Capture the Moments

You don’t need expensive equipment to start this project. Here’s what you’ll need.

  • You can record using a smartphone. For audio only, use a cassette recorder or a digital voice recorder. Video camcorders have features to edit, add effects and even share on social media.
  • A notepad to jot down what is said when. Think of it as a handy table of contents or outline. On your first review, write down the time that specific points occur. Doing this will save you time when you begin to edit. Take notes on interesting topics that can be revisited.
  • A microphone is optional unless your subject has a very low voice or has difficulty speaking clearly.

Contact your local library to see if they have audio/visual equipment available for check out by library patrons.

Setting Up

Do you need a studio to record in? No. A quiet room or office is fine. The important thing is that your subject or subjects can be heard and seen as clearly as possible. They’re the stars not the room or setting.

1. Make sure that the recording is occurring in a familiar environment like their home or yours. Your subject should be comfortable. Don’t force them into the perfect backdrop or shot. If your loved one prefers to sit in their favorite chair, let them.

2. Position the recorder, smartphone or camcorder close enough for a clear recording. It should be far enough away that it’s not in the subject’s way. If you have a tripod, use that. A small table works equally well. Use a pile of books as a stand.

3. Make a test recording. Adjust distance, lighting and position to get the best recording possible. You won’t need a microphone in most cases. Modern tape recorders and camcorders have microphones that can pick up audio clearly even from four feet away.

4. Plug in your smartphone, recorder or camera if possible. Batteries can die just as your loved one is getting to the good parts.

Avoid the Awkwardness

Talking on camera or being recorded can be awkward. People can be shy and uncomfortable at first. There are a variety of methods you can use to start the conversation and put your subject at ease.

Don’t Rush

Ensure you have enough time to do the recording. Squeezing it in on your lunch break would be stressful. Your loved one will feel hurried and that will only increase their anxiety. To avoid being overtired, record short segments instead of one or  hours long sessions.

Be Relaxed About the Content

A family history production can have a general outline but avoid following a script verbatim. A historical recording needs to be spontaneous and natural.

Be open about tangents in the conversation. You never know what insights will be revealed or long-burning questions finally answered.

Use the occasion to get to know your loved one in a different context. See how their eyes sparkle when thinking about their youth. Or how their demeanor changes as they talk about the highs and lows they have experienced. You might pick up some nuggets of wisdom.

Have A Variety of Questions and Icebreakers

As we age, the distant past becomes clearer. We can’t remember what we had for lunch yesterday but we can recall our elementary school hi jinks. Use questions to jog the memory cells backwards or forwards.

Here are some interview questions to try:

  • What do you remember about the earliest places you lived? Did you move around?
  • What kinds of things did you do for fun?
  • What kind of treats did you like as a kid?
  • What did you do during holidays? Christmas traditions?
  • Who visited you often? Grandparents? Cousins?
  • Did you have pets?
  • Where did you go to school? What school activities did you do?
  • What did you do at parties?
  • What or who did you want to be?
  • What inventions in your lifetime do you find most useful, fascinating or baffling?
  • What world events do you remember from your childhood?
  • What successes or failures have you had that taught you the most? What were those lessons?
  • What kinds of music, singers or programs did you listen or watch?
  • What games did you play?
  • What was your first job? Did you enjoy it? How did you decide on that job? Was it your dream job?
  • What places in your neighborhood did you go to?
  • What was your earliest childhood memories?
  • Did you have a mentor or role model that influenced you while growing up?
  • What stands out the most from your (wedding, birthdays, reunions)?
  • How did you choose names for your kids? Pets?
  • What stories did you parents and grandparents tell you?
  • What was dating like? How and where did you meet people?
  • Did you do chores around the house? Did you have an allowance?
  • What’s the furthest trip you’ve ever taken and why?
  • Did you learn a lesson or concept that changed your life?

What if your loved one doesn’t like talking about the past? There might have been a past traumatic experience or memory problems. An alternative would be to record your loved one reading. They could read a favorite family book, a children’s book, poetry, lullabies or even Bible stories. They could take a recent event or issue from the news and discuss it.

You can present an album or scrapbook and record your loved one as they flip through it. Capture their reactions and comments throughout. Prod them along with a question now and then. With their attention on the album, they will be less conscious of being recorded.

Remember, your main purpose is to capture your loved one at this moment in time. You want your recording to reflect their personality, their voice and their viewpoint expressed as only they can, quirks and all.

Here’s a good example of using questions to keep the conversation going.

Telling the Story

Now that you have your primary material, it’s time to think about the final product. Should you do one production or more than one? You have several options:

  • Create a set of smaller videos about a specific person, anecdote, event or heirloom mentioned by your subject. Shorter videos (less than 2 minutes long) are easier to share on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram. You can make it into a mini-history lesson, a cute or funny video or something inspiring.
  • Break up the production into specific themes like “The Early Years”, “On My Own”, “Service Blues”, “Here Come the Kids” or “Our Dream House.”
  • If you notice similarities between past and present, compare ancestors and descendants. Is there a resemblance or similar mannerisms?
  • Create one long, linear movie featuring your loved one in the starring role.
  • Highlight one generation of the family and how they connect with the present.

To bring some texture and context to your project, think about adding historical elements like recordings of speeches, short snippets of music, vintage posters, postcards, newspaper clippings and pictures.

History Pin – A collection of photos and videos about local areas, hobbies, historical events and places submitted from all over the world.

Time-Life Photo Archives – Life Magazine released thousands of images in their collection.

Time-Life Magazine Archives – Research full editions of Life Magazine.

What Happened On – Find out what happened on a specific date or year worldwide.

What Was There – A site that connects Google Maps with historical photos worldwide. You can

box of antique pictures

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!

All these ideas are buzzing in your head. You’re on fire to start putting things together. Your inner director is screaming to be released.

The Grandparent Book – This application walks you through creating an ebook of memories. You add questions that your loved one is recorded answering. You can include videos and photographs. The final product is a standard ebook in EPUB format. There is also a reader program so those without EPUB viewers can still view your family book. This is available on IOS and Mac.

Cyberlink PowerDirector – This program has features for all skill levels. Beginners can use Express Project to create their video in three steps. You can go all creative by adding effects or creating a collage from multiple videos. This is available for Windows 7, 8 and 10.

Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote are both venerable presentation software. Choose a template and add your videos and images. Experiment with transitions between slides to add some movement and sophistication. Export as a movie in MP4 or MOV formats.

Conclusion

Genetics can be a funny thing. A grandchild could look nothing like their parents but be a ringer for a great, great grandfather. Not only would this project be something an elderly loved one could contribute to in a positive manner, it’s also a gift to younger generations. It would show them not just where they came from but from whom. It’s a shared identity that all can recognize and be proud of.

I hope this post has started the mental gears moving. Every family has someone who has an interest in preserving family history. Share this with them and maybe help them with a project.

There are so many ways to do a history project. I’ve only included a few examples. Be creative!

If you have made family histories before, please share them in the comments.

Maria is a Hubspot-certified digital marketer and blogger. This self-confessed rat race refugee left a 20+ year technology career to take on the challenges of family caregiving. She published her first Kindle novel Conway 6-7. Lately, she has been dabbling in interactive fiction game development. She is a Certified Caregiving Advocate and lives near Chicago.

4 Comments

  1. Ian

    Reply

    I think the best part about this post is the questions about what to ask towards the end. I am starting to do oral interviews with people and this is perfect for my projects. I think it will allow me to connect with people better. Have you used these questions at all?

     

    • Maria

      Reply

      Yes, I have used these questions. In my experience, the questions that resulted in amusing anecdotes or more conversation were about the furthest trip taken, stories told to them by family. role model and contemporary invention. Good luck with your oral interviews. 

  2. C

    Reply

    Thank you for this great article. My aunt has always been very into genealogy, at least for the last 10 years or so. She uncovered some really cool family history, like one of my great-grandfather’s was actually a boxer. Creating a video like you are saying is a great way to talk about the family history and also talked about where your family is at today, so that future Generations will know. Thank you for your expertise on family caregiving, and have a great day.

  3. Henry

    Reply

    Hi! Thank you for opening my eyes to this reality. Family recording are so meaningful and we, most of the time, reduce our database to just pictures. But acknowledging the importance of audio will help us enrich our family files. As you have stated, it doesn’t have to be expensive equipment. A smartphone, tablet and an optional mic will do. But we’ll gain so much! Thanks!

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