It happens every time: I come to a senior assisted living facility to do a workshop on telling life stories. I enter a room filled with seniors in varying degrees of ability. Some are in wheelchairs, some have caregivers, some clearly can’t hear or see very well.

They are in their 80s and 90s – sometimes they’re close to 100. They could be my parents. They could be yours.

It’s easy to dismiss this group as a room full of old people. It’s even easier for each person in that room to make light of their life stories and insist that no one wants to hear what they have to say.

But I know better.

The Story Behind a Life Well Lived

I have been listening to the life stories of seniors for a long time.

I know that at first, each of the seniors will, in their own way, minimize the history of their life. “Eh,” said one elderly woman, a former nurse. “My life is so boring.”

But then I start asking questions and the room begins to buzz. “Tell me about a historical moment that happened in your life,” I ask, “and how it impacted you.” They all start furiously writing or they dictate breathlessly to a caregiver. Then we start sharing the stories out loud.

Turns out, everyone in that room had experienced the same club fire that happened in the 1940s in this city, but in different ways.

One woman lost her mother in that fire and described how much her life changed after that. Another woman lost two friends, another remembers hearing about it and being frightened.

It also turns out that my ‘boring’ nurse, who is black, went to nursing school in a city and in an era when black women struggled to be treated equally. She faced down constant racism in her determination to become a nurse. Why? With a shrug, she explains that she really wanted to be a nurse.

So Very Ordinary – or Maybe Not

These are ordinary men and women with extraordinary stories.

All life stories are.

I love hearing them. And these seniors love telling them. As they recount their stories, they rediscover their younger selves and start to see their life as the journey – and the adventure – that it was.

But life stories also have the power to resonate throughout the generations. They let us and our children understand upon whose shoulders we stand.

They provide the string that winds throughout a family, explaining so much – from how one child has a seemingly inexplicable musical gift to the sudden appearance of a redhead to the religious traditions that were handed down.

That is why it is imperative that we ask the right questions and then listen.

So many of us visit with our elderly parents – bringing along our kids – and we sit around and talk. We talk about the latest sports scores, about our children’s latest triumphs, about what is going on in the world. Sometimes we look for things to talk about.

Ask and Write Down

Why not ask your father what it was like to grow up in his neighborhood? Ask him to describe his house or a typical evening when he was young.

Ask your mother who her best friend was when she was 10. Ask her about her favorite recipes. Ask her how she met your father and when she knew she was in love.

Better yet, have your children ask these questions.

And make sure they record the answers or write them down. At first, you can tell them what to ask. Pretty soon, they’ll come up with their own questions.

And they’ll get the opportunity to see their grandparents as the unique, interesting people that they are.

That is an opportunity that doesn’t last forever.

How much do your children know about their heritage? What do you know about your family history? Let’s talk about it. Please start the conversation below.

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