20 family history questions to ask your grandparents

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01 October 2020
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Lily Harris shares her advice on great questions to ask your grandparents to explore your roots and family history.

Talking to an older member of your family can be difficult, especially if they’re suffering from dementia or hospitalised. It can be hard to know how to relate to them and what to talk about when there’s such an age difference between you. 

However, it’s worth making the effort, even if communication is a struggle. They won’t be here forever and when they pass away, they’ll take with them all the wisdom, memories and life experiences they’ve accumulated over their lifetime, unless you make the effort to get to know them. 

Even if there are communication issues, you can help your loved one to open up; 'Through being patient, remaining open to hear what they want to say and showing empathy, you can still encourage your loved one to participate in conversations', say Helping Hands Home Care. 

With this in mind, here are twenty questions that you must ask your grandparents: 

1. What is your earliest memory? 

If you’re lucky, your grandparent might remember right back to when they were aged as young as 2 or 3! 

2. Did you have a favourite toy as a child? 

Make sure you also find out why they loved this toy so much. Perhaps it was their only toy. Or they were fascinated by what it could do. 

3. What was your favourite television show as a child?

 Even if your grandparents didn’t have a television when they were growing up, this question will spark stories of when they first watched television and what they thought about the experience. 

4. Did you have a nickname when you were growing up? 

Where did the nickname come from? Often, you’ll hear embarrassing or cute stories that tell you so much about your loved ones. 

5. What was your favourite subject at school?

Why did you like it so much? Almost everyone has a story to tell about when they were at school including their favourite teachers, favourite lessons and other details from this era of their life 

6. How did your family spend time together when you were young? 

We take for granted what family life is like, but it may have been very different when your grandparents were older. 

7. What did you want to be when you grew up? 

As well as hearing about your grandparents’ childhood aspirations for the future, you’ll likely learn a lot about what it was like to be a child in that era. 

8. Where have you travelled? 

Everyone loves sharing holiday memories, whether they’re from exotic trips abroad or going to the British seaside eating soggy sandwiches! What was your grandparent’s favourite destination and why?


 

9. Did you ever get into trouble as a child? 

Asking about something ‘naughty’ is likely to bring a smile to your grandparents’ faces as they tell. But watch out! You might be surprised by what you hear! 

10. Does your name have a special meaning? 

Why did your parents choose this name? Asking this question can often unlock interesting details about their family dynamics growing up and bring heart-warming memories to the surface. 

11. Did you have a best friend when you were young? 

Also ask questions like ‘what was he or she like?’, ‘did they ever get you into trouble?’ and ‘where did they live?’. 

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12. Where did you meet grandma or grandpa? 

Telling stories of love and romance is sure to bring a warm glow to their faces, especially if you can encourage them to tell you about their first love too!  

13. Did you work? What was your job like? 

Again, this is a question that can speak volumes about your grandparent’s lives as well as the time they grew up in. Make sure you also find out whether this is the job they wanted and what they liked or disliked about the job. 

14. Where were you born? Where did you live as a child? 

As these memories are from such an early part of their lives, your grandparent is likely to find these details easy to recall and take great pleasure in sharing them, even if dementia is a factor. 

15. What was your first car like? 

Cars are often the pride and joy of the household and will trigger very descriptive stories about the car itself and the experience of enjoying that first taste of independence. 

16. What did you eat when you were a child? 

Childhood memories about food usually include the mouth-watering treats that your grandparents couldn’t wait to eat as well as the things that they absolutely hated. 

17. Where have you lived? 

Encourage your grandparent to tell you about their first house including where it was, what their bedroom was like and how many children were in the house. It’s almost certain to be different to your own living arrangements. 

18. What is different today compared to when you were younger? 

This can be a passionate topic, especially if they strongly disagree with what they’re seeing. Try not to judge- just listen as they express their thoughts. 

19. Do you have any secrets? 

Not every grandparent will be willing to share their deepest darkest secrets, but you’re almost likely to get a story or two related to embarrassing stories or relatively harmless things that they kept hidden away. 

20. Do you have any regrets? 

The answer to this question is likely to be somewhat emotional, so get the tissues ready. 

Your grandparents won’t be around forever so don’t waste the time you have with them. Spend as much time as you can with them, listen to their wisdom and create new memories together.


 Additional Sources:

5 tips to communicate with an elderly loved one here

What is your first memory – and did it ever really happen? here

The psychology of firsts – and why they stick in our memories here

Reminiscence for people with dementia here

'Every day was a happy day': older people talk about love lost and found here