The internet and social media revolution has presented seniors, family archivists and genealogists with quite a challenge: How do you tackle the monumental process of preserving family memories in the digital age?
These days, many people don't create photo albums and scrapbooks. They don't produce handwritten documents. Pictures and writings live in the electronic ether now: in phones and laptops, in an ever-evolving series of cloud-based apps and other digital media.
But what about the memories that came before? How can we transmit our keepsakes and heirlooms, our memoirs, our experiences, our wisdom and the physical fabric of our lives?
Today, let's talk about how you can take steps to preserve your family memories.
1. Have faith in the power of memories
Our descendants may no longer print out physical copies of photos and archive them in books. But that doesn't mean they don't value your photo albums, or that they don't want to know about the people and events they depict.
Our grandkids may be increasingly unable to produce or even read cursive handwriting. (We'll skip the debate, here, on the whether or not it's been a wise move for so many schools to cut handwriting from the early education curriculum).
But that doesn't mean they don't want to know the substance of your old letters. How can you preserve the value of those keepsakes? How do you pass along that knowledge?
Engage them! Your grandkids and great-grandkids care about you. They want to understand you and learn from you. Take the time to reach out to them.
Be careful not to force memory lane trips on them, especially with small children. But offer them opportunities to look through your albums, or you can read a few letters to them when you see them. You'll plant seeds that might bear fruit long after you're gone.
Share your personal stories from time to time, without waiting for someone to ask you. Often, they don't know what to ask about. When holiday conversations or other circumstances naturally remind you of a past event, a person or place you knew, lower your guard and share what you're thinking about.
2. Back up your data and back up your backups
Machines fail. Redundant machines, too, will fail. Inevitably, such failures will sometimes occur simultaneously. Assume they will, and plan accordingly.
For example, it's a great idea to keep files on your PC and on an external hard drive. But it's not going to help you to do so if you keep both on your desk and one day a pipe bursts over your office and floods both.
Scanning documents and storing them in several places (a primary hard drive or flash drive, plus at least one failsafe drive kept in a separate location, all backed up by "doomsday" storage on a cloud-based app like Carbonite) is a best practice for digital preservation.
3. DO NOT laminate
Many people make the mistake of laminating old letters and documents to preserve them. Believe it or not, this does more to destroy your documents than it does to protect them.
The chemical adhesives and plastic will, over time, chemically interact with the paper and ink you're trying to preserve, break them down and destroy them. And there's no way to undo the damage to an already-laminated document.
If you've already done so, no crying over spilled milk. Lesson learned. Don't laminate anything else.
4. Use proper preservation techniques
The best preservation methods for heirlooms vary by substance. A bronze lamp, for example, will have different physical qualities and undergo different degenerative processes than a gold ring, a carved wooden sculpture or an antique mirror.
Work with a reputable conservator to protect your most important items and documents. If you don't have the budget to do so, check out this easy, thorough resource page on FamilySearch that includes sound advice and do-it-yourself methods for preserving items of all kinds.
5. Consider all the things that could go wrong before choosing where to store
The primary enemies you'll face in preservation are damage from heat, ultraviolet light, chemical reactions (e.g., rust and other oxidation processes), microbes (bacteria, fungi/yeast and algae), insects/rodents and physical calamities (floods, fires, storms, etc.).
Keep sensitive documents and heirlooms in plastic bags, inside plastic tubs and stored in cool, dark, dry locations — avoid basements, garages and attics, if possible.
If you really want to protect your documents from water and pest damage, put them in sealed plastic bags inside airtight and watertight plastic containers. Mothballs and deterrent sprays might keep insect larvae away, but they also introduce chemical reactants into the ambient air, which can damage your items in and of themselves.
When storing, store on shelves, not on the floor. Upstairs closets are less likely to have pipes running overhead or behind their walls and thus make better options than downstairs closets, especially if you live in an area prone to flooding.
For really important financial documents, passports, wills, etc., consider renting a safe-deposit box at your bank. Offsite, climate-controlled, underground, high-security storage units can be a good bet, too — especially if you live in an area prone to strong thunderstorms, hurricanes, forest fires or other natural disasters.
Preserving documents because you're thinking of downsizing out of your home?
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Do you have difficulty coming up with things to talk about at family gatherings? Let’s face it — not everyone is the life of the party! Some of us are more introverted than others.
But if you’re an older adult living in Cincinnati who is looking for ideas about holiday conversation starters, you’ve come to the right place. Today, let’s look at a few techniques you could use to keep the discussion lively at your family’s holiday dinner table this year.
Be the family historian.
Sometimes, it may appear that some young people aren’t interested in learning about and preserving our family histories. But what are we doing to encourage them?
Instead of sitting back and waiting to be asked about your memories, look for opportunities to incorporate your life’s anecdotes and remembrances into conversations at the dinner table. Dig out those family photo albums and share memories from your childhood or youth.
Say, for example, your granddaughter recently earned her nursing degree, and your mother was a nurse in the Second World War. You might bring that up and recount to your granddaughter some of your mother’s nursing stories or other wartime experiences.
Or, you might look around for attributes that remind you of long-gone relatives. Someone’s blue eyes might remind you of your uncle’s blue eyes, or someone’s voice might sound a lot like your aunt’s. Pass along these little tidbits; they can often lead to questions about what so-and-so was like or about your childhood memories of them.
Ask open-ended questions.
This is especially true if you’re trying to coax conversation out of a shy grandchild. Instead of asking, “How’s school?” (you’re more likely to get a “Fine” in return instead of a substantive discussion), you might try asking, “What are you studying right now?” Follow up with, “What do you like most about ...?”
The more open-ended the question, the more likely you’ll find nooks and crannies to explore in conversation. And remember, ask your grandchildren about things you know interest them —play to their excitement! Learn about their latest toy, their favorite TV show, or their friends. The more you show a willingness to engage kids on their own terms, the more likely they are to open up to you.
Don’t feel self-conscious about letting yourself act like a little kid again! If you see your grandkids playing with toys in a corner, ask if you can play with them. And let your grandchild lead the game.
More Holiday Tips: Reflecting on the Holidays at Deupree House
Learn the stories behind their action figures, playsets, or games, no matter how strange or silly they may seem. Don’t let your grandchildren feel like you’re judging them. The more you engage in your grandchildren’s world on their own terms, the more likely they’ll be to open up to you.
Get a game going.
Whether it’s a conversation starter like Scattergories, Apples to Apples, or Taboo, or a traditional board game that a lot of people can play at once, like Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly, or Clue, games are always good ways to get people laughing and chatting around the table after dinner.
Or, break out the cards. Pinochle, euchre, Uno, or even a friendly family game of penny-ante poker can help everyone relax and have fun together.
Use these tips to have a warm, fun holiday gathering.
The best holiday conversations happen when you least expect them. The hints above may help you get the ball rolling, but once everyone is relaxed and talking, you’ll inevitably be surprised by the turns the conversations take.
If you’re a senior living in Cincinnati who’ll be hosting or attending a family holiday gathering, keep your ears and eyes peeled for opportunities to engage your family members. And keep those family stories ready.