Years ago, after my mom moved to assisted living, I reluctantly began the task of going through years and years of accumulated “stuff” in order to get the house ready for sale. It was a task I dreaded with every fiber of my being and to say I honed my procrastination skills throughout would be an understatement.

We All Have a Life Story

There are certain aspects of that experience that stand out more than others, and one of those was cleaning out Mom’s office. Sifting through everything from decades old bills, cards and files, to documents that marked significant milestones in her life – her divorce decree and mortgage paperwork. Years worth of experiences and memories in that room, and I sorted through each piece of paper wanting to be sure I didn’t inadvertently toss something of particular sentimental value.

One exceptionally poignant moment came when I stumbled across a fairly ordinary looking legal pad and noticed the first couple of pages contained Mom’s handwriting. As I read it, I realized she had been writing down her life story. It was clear that she was already having some difficulty when she began to record these memories from her childhood. Some of the sentences were unclear, and the handwriting a bit askew. This was the first time I knew for sure that she must have recognized she was slipping – thus the desire to chronicle these moments in time. Unfortunately, she didn’t get very far.

Mining for Treasures

Whether we’ve given it much conscious thought or not, most of us would like to leave a legacy behind for future generations, and for the world as a whole. One great way to help your loved one tell his or her story is to pose some thought provoking questions, then just sit back and listen. Record their answers on paper, or better yet, make a video or audio recording – there’s something very special about hearing that voice when you find yourself missing them.

Karl Pillemer, Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and founder of The Legacy Project suggests using these six conversation starters to unearth nuggets of wisdom from parents and grandparents.

1. If a young person asked you, “What have you learned in your ____ years in this world,” what would you tell him or her?

2. Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give an example?

3. As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed the course of your life or set you on a different track?

4. What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?

5. What can younger people do to avoid having regrets later in life?

6. What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

Don’t Wait to Get Started

One bit of advice, do this sooner than later. Whether you use the questions listed above or create your own, there’s no time like the present. These are the things that are easy to put off until another day, and before we know it, the opportunity is gone.

For lessons on every topic from love and marriage, raising children, and faith, to aging well, living with loss, and finding happiness, visit The Legacy Project. There you will find words of wisdom and bits of practical advice collected from over 1,500 older Americans (age 70 and up) over the past nine years. I can’t think of a better way to honor the generations that came before us.

Have you interviewed a loved one? What tips can you suggest? We’d love to hear your ideas!


  1. Elaine Mansfield

    This is always such a good idea. My husband and I did a StoryCorp interview 5 months before he died. It was so full of love and tenderness, since we knew that he wouldn’t live long. I teased when the interview was done: “You finally got just what you wanted. I ask you a few questions and you get to do all the talking.” The CD is valued by my sons and others, but I think it means the most to me because I was there, asking those questions, and feeling the preciousness of love and the fragility of life..
    Thanks for this great post, Ann.

  2. Ann

    Thanks for the feedback, Elaine. I catch StoryCorp almost every morning on my way to work. Absolutely love those interviews; how fortunate you were to be a part of that. Recently, I heard a teenage daughter and her developmentally disabled mother interview each other; it moved me to tears. Incredible stories. 🙂

  3. NSW retirement villages

    Interesting read! Thank you for sharing such great and informative ideas here. Nice share!!

    • Ann Napoletan

      Thank you for the feedback; I’m glad you found it useful. ~Ann

  4. Kathy

    We too sifted through piles of documents before our mom moved to assisted living. In the process we found scraps of paper with incomplete thoughts. She was trying to assemble family lore and history for us. Thanks for the information and reminder.It’s time for me to start my story.

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