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Family histories should be valued

Recalling family histories, particularly when passed from older generations to children, is a valuable way of encouraging youngsters to understand and respect old people says Sarah Reed, founder of Many Happy Returns.

Recently, an insightful colleague commented, “If you want to find out about anyone, go to their funeral.”

Many of us know only little about our parents’ lives. For example, my father spent six years as an army doctor in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Greece, running a field hospital and later, closing the Prisoner of War hospitals as his company travelled north back to Britain at the end of the second world war.

Despite my attempts to find out what it was like, he resolutely refused to talk about his experiences and I soon realised that I would never know – they were too traumatic to revisit – and better told by others after his death.

Sadly, by the time he died, there was no one left to tell the stories and so now they are lost.

But get him going about family life at home in a small Hampshire village, and he was away. Even if their lives were less than comfortable, he would tell heart-warming stories of nurturing rescued lambs in the kitchen that later became family pets; of his father wearing a thick woolen three-piece suit and stiff starched collar and tie to go to the beach in the height and heat of the summer – even if he did knot a handkerchief for his head and roll up his trouser legs…

These pictures of his childhood that he painted in words gave him much pleasure in the remembering and me in the listening to them.

His memories brought us closer together.

And yet, it’s surprising in this day and age, which places such importance and emphasis on 'communication', how little of it some of us are doing.

Most of my friends know only small patches of information about their parents’ experiences. Many are sorry that they never asked while they could.

Nowadays we tend to talk to one another in limited 'age bands'. For example, with both my parents dead, if I didn’t do my reminiscence and voluntary work, my opportunities to speak with older people are limited.

The average age of grandparents in this country is now 65.

Some  have warm, meaningful, connected relationships with their children and grandchildren. But many don’t.

There are many more a full generation older, living an increasingly limiting and limited life who have little or no contact with younger people, who in turn, know very little about them.

One simple, fun and effective way through this unintentional generational standoff is reminiscing using reminiscence cards. Remembering takes older people back to where their happy memories reside and gives younger people a passport to a time that may be all but forgotten, and as importantly, insights into their own lives and ways of living.

In times past, life offered more opportunities for young and old to mingle at home. 'Respect for elders and betters' was an accepted attitude and provided a social structure in which old and young could engage more fluently, if formally, to share their stories.

My Great Auntie May stayed with us on and off for years. She had a moustache and goatee beard but we learnt as children not to comment or tease.

I never wanted her to leave as I discovered what amusing company she was. Her stories of moving house every year for two decades were a constant source of fascination and laughter, even if the impetus behind them was tragic – she couldn’t settle after the death of her adored only son in a motorcycle accident.

When I run children’s workshops in care homes I witness the same thing happening. The children, whose access to older people is generally minimal or entirely absent, find it easy and enjoyable to converse with people eighty years or so older than them, as long as they are given the means to do it.

A box of Many Happy Returns cards, which provide visual memory triggers for the older person and enough background information to allow the younger person to hold a meaningful conversation, is central to the success of these encounters.

And the older people are equally surprised by how pleasurable the experience is.

I often hear them say how pleased they are by the 'unexpectedly nice manners' of the children they meet. The media has driven an unhealthy and unwarranted wedge between age groups in this country.

Older people sharing their oral histories on these occasions is no different to a grandparent, or great grandparent, holding centre stage at a family gathering.  

In a society that is so youth-centric, we are in danger of losing these family histories, which give us context for our own lives and our place in the family group that often has generations of history and mutual support.

Family history is important not just for current family members, but for generations to come. Now, in this digital age, they can be stored safely and accessed in the future.

So consider writing down the family history, talking to older relatives to find the memories and stories they will be happy and willing to share, and store these in your Lifebox.  

Nominate your executor or next of kin as the second key holder who can only open the Lifebox when your death is confirmed or when you give permission.,

 One of your instructions to the second keyholder is that they should ensure future generations know of the family history and their place in it.

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