This is a straightforward, fill-in-the-blanks approach to interviewing an adult, and is especially appropriate for the very old. You can also complete this life story for yourself. The Legacy Project has a more detailed list of life interview questions, as well as a simple Generations Scrapbook for children. We offer a Life Interview Kit you can order. And you can write and permanently record a Life Statement.
The Life Story sheets are also useful in a care setting for older adults who may have Alzheimer's, other forms of dementia, or other functional impairments. The sheets can be completed by a family member, staff, or young volunteers from schools.
This fill-in-the-blanks life story has been inspired by an assessment form developed by the Center in the Woods and published in Beyond Baskets & Beads: A Manual of Activities for Older Adults with Functional Impairments by Mary Hart et al.
Explains Beyond Baskets & Beads:
Too often we only know people as they are today, failing to recognize that each person is a sum total of the experiences which make up his or her life. We believe that this is where many of the usual assessment tools fall short. Most of them are a checklist format – easy to complete, but almost impossible to recall or use in any meaningful way. Most of the questions are close-ended, requiring only a brief response. They don't encourage the in-depth kind of conversation that can get at the personal and truly pertinent information…. [With this assessment], instead of a cold list of facts, we have a biography of a fascinating human being.
I've heard comments that older people, especially those with functional impairments, become "like children." Some of their behavior may be childlike, but they are NOT children. They are adults with a personal history. Children simply don't have that kind of personal history. After decades of living, none of us would want our life experiences to be dismissed. Acknowledging a person's personal history is what allows older adults to maintain their respect, dignity and, often, their connection to the world around them and the people they love.
At Center in the Woods, a care facility for older adults in California, PA, each staff member or volunteer who works with an older person is required to read through that person's life story. In this way, they aren't just an "old man or woman with Alzheimer's" but become "someone's mother or grandmother, a lady who owned her own business or lived in Paris. The frail elderly man regains his status as the president of a company or a skilled surgeon. No longer is this person to be pitied or patronized. Instead, we see a person to be admired and respected, a person who is approaching the latter part of a full and useful lifetime." The center's activities can then be planned with people's interests in mind, and information about individuals is much easier to remember and use during interactions.
The Life Story sheets can be completed by interviewing an older person. Families can complete the sheets as a personal record, and as information they can pass along to a care facility. Or, staff or volunteers in a seniors center, nursing home, or other assisted living facility can do the interview when a resident arrives. If the older person can't answer all the questions on their own, family members can help provide information. This is also an activity that young people in schools or community groups, especially teenagers, can volunteer to do in local seniors centers or care facilities. Many seniors centers/facilities are desperate for volunteers, and this kind of help is a welcome first step to perhaps long-term volunteering. Doing the interview introduces young people to the strengths and diversity of older people, even those who may have functional impairments, and provides a valuable service. For the older people, just going through the exercise of the interview can mean a great deal. People want to talk about their lives, dreams, and personal challenges, but they are rarely asked. When a young person takes the time to listen to an older person, what the young person is really saying is that who the older person is, what they've done, and the things they care about are important.
Some basic tips for doing an interview with an older adult to complete the sheets:
An interview is just like talking with someone, but with prepared questions.
Ask questions clearly and slowly, giving the person time to answer. Repeat questions if necessary.
Listen carefully to what the person says; don't interrupt or correct. Maintain eye contact and show interest by leaning forward and nodding.
If someone is talking about an unhappy or painful experience, show that you understand how they feel (e.g. "That's very sad").
It's okay for there to be moments of silence or emotion. A person's life is important, and emotion is natural. Accept emotions as part of the process.
If the person doesn't want to talk about something, that's okay – just go to the next question.
If the person has a lot to say in response to a particular question, summarize the key ideas to fit in the space available on the sheets.
An interview shouldn't last more than an hour. People do best when they're not tired. You can always finish the interview at another time.
Don't forget to thank the person you've interviewed. Let them know you value what they've shared.
When the Life Story sheets have been completed for an elder, it's a nice idea for a family member to read the story on audio or ideally video, with the camera zooming in on specific photos during appropriate parts of the story (begin and end the video with a current photo of the person). The video brings more life to the story, and can be played if the older adult is feeling depressed, bored, restless, or agitated. The sheets and audio/video also become a long-term family keepsake.
Click to download the Life Story sheets (12 pages).