The Deepest, Most Meaningful Gift You Can Give An Elderly Relative

Photo: - Yuri A / 
family hiking up a grassy hill

For many people, the holiday season may be one of those contrived obligations we're compelled to observe, perhaps grudgingly.

Families who live apart are expected to come together for joyous festivities that can often disappoint.

Like Mother's and Father's Day, Valentine's Day, anniversaries, and birthdays, the winter holiday season gives rise to a list of commercially driven expectations for store-bought gifts, cards, and platitudes mundanely marking the passage of time.

This year you can create an experience that will give your family the greatest gift by receiving the life stories of older loved ones — while also providing a warm, emotional lift to a cherished family elder.

It's a holiday win-win, and a way to transform a mundane gathering into a life-affirming, memory-making event.

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How sharing stories benefits our elder relatives

There are documented emotional and mental benefits derived from telling stories. Our older relatives, in particular, experience a deeper level of peace when they are encouraged to share their experiences. 

The initial conversation may also lead to more inquiries and interactions. One story may become a prelude to others, and the documenting of memories to be cherished.

Expressing appreciation, gratitude, and love is now more significant, meaningful, and life-affirming than ever.

Family gatherings can be stressful. You can take the opportunity to transform a contrived occasion into a meaningful experience that will be treasured and ennobling for all.

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Stories can help heal, too

Conversations about happy times and people from the past may be a wonderful comfort and solace for those who suffer from grief for those who are gone.

It can enable the elderly to tap into memories they may long to share. As we age, many thoughts and dreams dwell in our past.

So, open the chance for them to tell a story that brings a smile.

Think about ways your parents and relatives helped you learn how to be a person in this world.

The stories about character and priorities such as education, having your back, useful advice, and ways you felt heard, seen, and loved (even if sporadic) illustrate values that are difficult to say without having a context from your shared experience with the person you are honoring.

Let them know you are asking them to do this as their gift to everyone present.

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Nine ways to encourage your older relatives to share their life stories 

1. Alert them and set aside time

Allow them to prepare whatever stories or activities you request. Hence, it is not a surprise or impromptu request. Storytelling time should be built into your festivities so everyone who wants to can be engaged.

2. Keep it simple 

The presentation should be brief and easy. You can even rehearse with the person, so you and they know what to expect and are comfortable with how it will be spoken and discussed.

3. Tailor your questions to their lives 

Sometimes, a prompt or response to their story can open a fruitful discussion resulting in more engagement and delight.

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4. Ask about what life was like in simple demonstrable ways 

What did you do as a family together? What were memorable trips or vacations? Who was your favorite relative, and why?

5. Use visual cues 

Match a photo and the story that goes with it. A visual prop of a family heirloom or image can make the story come alive and easily relatable.

6. Practice active listening

Respond with questions that ask for more information and insight. Questions could be: How did you feel? What were the circumstances? Were there others involved?

RELATED: 5 Easy Ways To Improve Your Active Listening Skills (& Build Better Relationships)

7. Respect boundaries 

Personal accounts may bring up difficult feelings or past conflicts, potentially overstepping carefully constructed boundaries. Be aware that only some things need to be told or inquired about for a family story to be recollected and received.

8. Tell a fond memory of what they did for you or someone else 

Everyone wants to be seen, appreciated, and missed. As you reflect on your relationship, there may be a story or event that you can relate to that shows you remember and understand some act of kindness or happiness that will bring a smile.

9. Get the kids involved 

Many teens and young children are adept at digital editing and creating online videos. They can make a video documentary with photos matched to music that can be a delightful follow-up to the storytelling event.

Their creation could even be a video the family views a generation from now as they recall the loved ones who told their stories so future generations could connect in beloved memory.

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Jeff Saperstein is an ICF-certified career coach and memoirist who works with business professionals who feel stuck and want a career transition.