I had never really given much thought to a personal life history until my dad’s death a couple of years ago. He resided in a nursing home for a little over a year before he died and unbeknownst to me, the speech pathologist had been obtaining information from my dad over the course of many weeks.
I knew he spent time with Laura Beth Walden, SLP, every week because during her therapy she would have a small bottled Coke and peanut butter crackers for him to snack on. He always enjoyed that)))
When she had completed the task, she told me about it and gave me a copy of it. I was so thankful and surprised to learn some things that I never knew about him. The history was so complete and interesting that we used the actual document at his funeral. We just had to add a few names here and there. Some things were not so clear to him at times.
I wish so much we had a similar document from my mother and two sisters and my grandparents.
So my plan today is to share a questionnaire with you. I’ve made some adjustments to it by adding some extra questions. There is a link at the bottom of this post that you can download and print if you wish.
Personal Life History
Taking a personal life history sounds easy enough, but remember that you don’t want to exhaust the person doing the answering.
Ask questions in small bites. If health is declining, only ask on good days. Chances are it would be better to have someone other than a family member do the asking. The answers might otherwise be clouded or have less detail because they would assume you already knew some of what you were asking.
If the person is able and prefers to give a handwritten answer, that would be great. Try recording their answers if they don’t mind or do a video. Take notes and put your findings together later. You don’t have to exhaust one subject before moving on to another.
Be flexible. You might ask a question that spurs another memory they wish to talk about. Let them talk. Tell me about….is always a good opener.
Daddy could be quiet or confused at times and we could say tell us about (any topic) and he would perk up and start talking. I was able to record a few sessions before he died. One was about driving in the 1930s and one was about making hand-cranked ice cream. I wish now I had asked so many more questions to get those stories.
Some questions are likely to have some sad answers. Acknowledge this and steer to happier times. Allow them to express sadness, but you don’t what this to be a difficult time for them. Focus on happy memories, funny stories, and interesting details.
Tailor your questions based on the age of the person. Things like what was your first computer might not be relative to some seniors, but would be a good question for me to answer)))
Ask about their birthday and try to confirm the date.
Did parents ever tell the story of their birth or anything special about it?
What hospital and town, or was it a home birth?
Were there any special events happening at the time? Wartime? Depression?
Ask about baby pictures, or pictures of mom and baby if available.
What were your parents’ names?
How did your parents meet?
What did your parents do for a living?
Where did you live?
What do you remember most about your Mother? Father?
Tell me about your grandparents.
Do you favor one of your parents in looks?
Tell me about your childhood.
What kind of house did you group up in?
Did you have any daily chores?
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Tell me what you and your friends did for fun.
Tell me about your typical day in the summer. winter.
What was special to you about holidays?
What kind of pets did you have?
What were your pets’ names?
Where did you get them?
Which was your favorite?
Could they do any tricks?
Important Values & Beliefs
Values and beliefs important to me are:
What advice would you give to young people?
What values and beliefs did you learn from your parents?
Were there other people who influenced you?
What was one major lesson that you learned during your life?
Likes and Dislikes
Time of Day:
Some things I really don’t like:
Highest Level of Education?
Where did you go to school?
Tell me about your schoolhouse.
How many kids were usually in your class?
Did you ever have to miss school to work?
Who was your favorite teacher?
What was your favorite subject?
Who were your best friends?
Did you play sports?
What did you do at recess?
Tell me about your most embarrassing moment at school.
Did you ever get in trouble at school?
Love and Marriage
Who are/were you married to?
When is your anniversary?
Tell me how you met.
How did you propose or how were you proposed to?
Did you give (or receive) a ring?
Tell me about your wedding day.
What did you wear?
What did your family think of your spouse?
Did she/he have any brothers or sisters?
How did you get along with the family?
Any silly arguments between you and your spouse?
Tell me the names of your children.
How did you decide on their names?
Do you have grandchildren or great-grandchildren?
Tell me how it felt when your children were born.
How did it feel to become a grandparent?
What do your grandchildren call you?
Is there anything you wish you had done differently with your children or grandchildren?
What words would you hope that your children and grandchildren would use to describe you?
What was your first paying job?
How much money did you make?
Tell me about your favorite job.
What about your least favorite job?
Did you ever get fired from a job?
What was the hardest job you ever had?
Who were some of your work friends?
Hobbies and Interests
Did you have a hobby? Tell me about it.
What could you do, that most of your friends could not?
Who taught you how to do things?
Did you like to go see movies or shows?
What was the first movie you remember?
Do you like to dance?
Did you play sports or like to watch them?
Do you like to fish or hunt?
Did you ever get into a fistfight?
Do you like to watch sports on TV?
Tell me about your favorite team.
Did you ever see a professional game?
Did you travel?
How about family vacations?
What was the largest city you ever visited?
How many states have you been to?
Tell me about the best trip you ever took.
Tell me about the first night you spent away from home.
First time you drove a vehicle?
Do you remember your first kiss?
The first time you ever smoked a cigarette.
First time you tasted alcohol.
The first time you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Tell me about your favorite home or house you have lived in.
What does your house look like?
Have you ever lived with someone other than family?
Did you live out on your own before marriage?
Family Life & Traditions
What traditions does your family have?
Do you get together on holidays?
How do you celebrate birthdays?
What was the best birthday present you ever received?
How about the best Christmas present you ever received?
What was the worst gift you ever received?
How did you find out about Santa Claus?
Vehicles & Transportation
What was your favorite form of transportation?
Who taught you how to drive?
How old were you?
Did you ride the school bus?
Did you ride horses?
Tell me about your first vehicle.
Did you ever get a traffic ticket?
What were the roads like?
What was the speed limit?
How much was gasoline?
Did you have aunts, uncles, and cousins?
Did they live close to you?
How often did you see them?
Tell me what you would do when you all got together.
Did you attend church?
What did the church look like?
Who was the pastor?
Did you have a Sunday School teacher that you liked best?
Do you have a favorite gospel song?
What kind of functions did the church have?
Did you go to church on other days than Sunday?
Tell me about your Sunday afternoons.
Did you serve in the military?
Which branch of service?
Where were you stationed?
Tell me about your basic training.
Did you have to fight in a war?
Have you remained in touch with any of your military friends?
What advice would you give to someone thinking about entering the service?
Appliances and Gadgets
Did you always have electricity growing up?
What was it like if not?
Do you remember the first time your family got electricity?
How was your home heated and cooled when you were growing up?
What did your first TV look like?
What was the first TV show you remember?
Do you remember your first microwave?
How were clothes washed and dried?
Personal Life History
Use these suggested questions and topics to encourage the person to speak about their life. Some are open-ended questions and others are leading.
If you get a “yes” to question, expand on it. You can always use the phrase “tell me about…..”
These are just suggestions. If the person starts talking about something else, just follow their lead and keep listening. Take notes or record.
If you encounter topics that seem distressful, don’t dwell on them. Not everyone’s life is a bed of roses. A sad topic is okay, but don’t push for more if you have entered a touchy subject. Encourage those funny stories!
A personal history should only be the facts that the person wishes to share. Don’t fill in the blanks with what you know to be fact, unless it is just dates, names, etc.
Do It Now
Don’t put it off. It can take a while to gather the information. Once it’s completed you can sort it into a nice readable format. Type it up or create a booklet in something like Canva. Insert a few pics here and there if you have them.
Keep it in a safe place. You might be surprised at how many times you will refer back to it when something comes to mind. I reviewed daddy’s just the other day to see what he had said about his military service. I wish so much I had one from my mother and grandparents.
Here’s a link to a downloadable version. It’s just a guideline of questions. It’s not an editable file. Sorry I didn’t know how to do that.
It’s just an example, you can expand on it, shorten it, or make it more specific to the person. Remember to ask the questions in small bites. That way you should get more information than just trying to do it all in one setting. They will get tired and give you short answers.
Try to get a video if you can. Sometimes I would sit across from daddy with my camera on and he would never notice. Here’s an example of my dad, age 96, telling how they used to freeze ice cream in the 1920s. He died two years later at 98.
You know, you could just fill it out for yourself. Tuck it away with your will so they will see it at some point. What a delightful gift it would be to find I think))
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