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How to Help Older Loved Ones Write Their Life Story

Or do it for yourself!

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illustration of older woman reflecting over her life
Rozalina Burkova
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When my 87-year-old mother moved into a nursing home a few years after my father died, it was a rough transition. Like many elders, she missed her independence and close friends. I visited when I could (a cross-country, multi-legged flight) and in between trips, looked for other ways to brighten Mom’s mood.

I called and wrote regularly, sending photos of my family, plus little treats, such as fun socks and dark chocolate. Mom had been a loyal letter writer, starting when I left for college in the early 1970s.

So I started sending her copies of these old letters, along with notes on what was going on in my life — often an odd juxtaposition of topics, contrasting things like my mother shopping for hot pants in 1972 (not for her, but for my younger sister’s birthday) along with my newfound insights from a consciousness-raising group.

But for Mom’s 90th birthday, I wanted to do something bigger, and more meaningful. I hit upon the idea of helping her put together a book containing her life story and memories. After looking at various resources on the subject, I came up with a plan.

I developed a list of questions to interview Mom about, focusing on the first 20 years of her life, from birth (1927) until marriage (1947). I gathered photos of her life over the next 70+ years, grouped by categories such as grandkids and a hodgepodge called “Many Faces of Mom.” A friend with strong design skills put the book together and got it printed. We titled it “This Is Your Life!”

When Mom saw the finished book, she was not only delighted but exclaimed, “I can’t believe this is my life! It’s so interesting. How did you do this?” I reminded Mom that it was her story and memories. I just helped assemble it (with help from my older sister Linda and a tech-savvy friend).

Sadly, Mom died two years after her big party. But “This Is Your Life!” got her interested in doing more writing and we started a new project (a humor book for seniors). Best of all, this book of memories and stories now serves as a lasting testament to my mother and her wonderful life.

There are dozens of books, apps and services to help with such a project, and numerous ways to approach it. Here are key things to decide before launching in.

Purpose of the book. Make sure you and your family members are on the same page (pun intended). Do you want to do a book to preserve stories for grandchildren and other family members? Provide a creative outlet? Help your loved one relive happy memories? Strengthen your relationship with each other? Write a bestseller (unlikely, unless your subject is well known or has a fascinating story and you’re a published writer)? In any case, you’ll want this project to be a positive, uplifting and fun experience all around.

Topics and time period to be covered. Focus on what your subject most wants to write about. These may be key milestones and memories, beginning with childhood; stories from a specific time period, such as post-retirement; a unifying theme, such as the importance of humor in your family; or a particular passion, such as golf, bridge, or travel. Writing a full-scale biography, from birth to the present, is definitely the hardest to tackle.

Specific questions. Once you’ve determined the general scope of the project, develop a list of specific questions. Rather than just asking your mother “tell me about your teenage years,” for example, plan to ask about her best friends when she was 16, and about what they loved to do together.

There are dozens of books available, such as 100 Questions for Mom: A Journal to Inspire Reflection and Connection and A Lifetime of Memories, that will help you craft questions. Online resources can also help, such as the classes offered by AARP on writing a memoir.

How you are going to collect information. Make the project interactive — don’t expect you’ll just hand your elderly parent a list of questions and he or she will fill it out on their own. In-person interviews are ideal if you see your parent or other subject regularly, and are especially valuable if the person has any cognitive problems.

Don’t rush it; plan to take the time to listen carefully and prompt your subject to expand on a particular topic. You can record answers on your phone or laptop, or by hand if you write fast and have legible handwriting.

If you can’t meet in person, interviews by phone or by computer work, too. Zoom or FaceTime can be great options if your subject is comfortable, has these tools and is comfortable logging into them. To round out your subject’s history, speak to other family and friends who can add valuable anecdotes.

Include photos and graphic. Photos of family and friends will bring life to the book and may mean having old images restored. Consider including photos of the cottage where your family spent many summers, or grammar school class pictures. I found an online photo of my parents’ first apartment and included it in my mother’s book.

How you plan to assemble, edit, design, and print the book. You have many choices, depending on your own editorial, design, and tech skills; your budget and timeline; the number of copies you want to print; and how you plan to distribute them. If you’re on a budget, you could print up your book at a local copy center for minimal cost (particularly if you are not including color photos or are only making a few copies). For a more polished look, you can use a print-on-demand (POD) service like Blurb.com (especially useful for photo-heavy books) or Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), which offers various templates to assemble and fulfill orders of your book, with no minimum print quantities.

Hire out the heavy lifting. If this seems like too much to take on, check out services such as StoryTerrace, which match you with a professional writer. That person will interview your subject (in person or by phone or video), and design, print and deliver the completed book. Another service is Life History Services.

Have you ever helped an older loved one write their life story? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below. 

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