Conversation Starter: Great Conversations with Your “Greatest Generation” Parent

By: Beth Sanders

Do you fall in that common trap of talking about the weather and health problems every time you talk to mom or dad on the phone or in person? OR do you slide with them into worrying about family finances, today's headlines, and when Aunt Martha is going to get her knee replacement? If you are a daily caregiver for your mom or dad, do you think regularly that there is nothing left to talk about (and if you hear that "same old story" you're going to scream)? If mom or dad lives in a nursing home or retirement community, are you a clock watcher and can't wait to end your visit after just 10 minutes?
Well, you're not alone. If any of these situations fits you, then it's time to step back and make some changes so conversations can be more meaningful for both you and your parent or parents. After all, there's no sense wasting time and they still have much to give and share.

The next time you see mom or dad, it's time to empower them to reminisce in a new way---with a bit more structure than just stories swapped around the dinner table. You see, it's important for you to take the lead on this and ASK them questions that typically don't come up in normal conversation. Most will be happy to answer if you can genuinely show you're interested. I know it may be hard to believe, but it might even be fun for you to transport them to a different time and place that only they can share through the questions you pose. These are things that you may have never discussed before, or maybe you have but you'd like to hear the story again and maybe actually record and preserve it this time.   

The key thing is to realize that their stories are an INCREDIBLE GIFT to you, and it's important for parents or grandparents to know that you actually WANT that gift badly. Okay, so you might be thinking you don't want the gift of their stories right now because you've heard it so many times or you're busy (or that you'll always remember that story so there is no need to write it down), but too many people regret not capturing the stories while they had a chance and they find it difficult to remember the details of the stories later no matter how hard they try. So many people tell me..."If only I would have written some of those stories down."

Before I give you some ideas of questions to ask, let's stop for a moment and think about the importance of our mothers and fathers. Many of these men and women are considered the Greatest Generation. We all know they have lived through extraordinary times--the Great Depression, World War II (FYI--only 18% of the World War II veterans still remain with us), and massive changes throughout the 20 th and now the 21st Century. They were inventors of the incredible technologies we use today. They raised 77 million Baby Boomers for goodness sake! So they certainly have a life story to tell…but how will you help them tell it? How will you capture the essence of who he or she is while you have this chance? Wouldn't it be great to have their words of wisdom instead of just scrapbooks and an obituary some day to share with the grandchildren?

Okay, so let's look at a few conversation starter questions for you to ask this week. Don't put this off—you've got some new things to learn from your parents that you don't want to miss. Every day is a gift, right? Have a pad of paper and pen handy (to write down his or her answers) and give it a try (if your parents are willing) by asking these conversation starter questions either by phone or in person:
Great conversation starter #1: What is the greatest invention that has come along in your lifetime so far? Why was this invention important to you?

Great conversation starter #2: When you were a child or teen, what were your dreams and plans for the future? What did you want to be when you grew up? 

Great conversation starter #3: Remember a memorable or funny experience you had a on date.

Great conversation starter #4: Where was your favorite place to live and what made that place special?  

Great conversation starter #5: It's been said that, "The best things in life are free." Is this true?

When it comes to helping our parents' record their life stories, there's no time like the present and no better gift to the future.   As for you, it's time to tell YOUR story too.  Have fun and good luck!

Beth Sanders is the founder of and author of the Memory Journal. In 1993, she interviewed her own grandmother and realized that she never knew her as well as she could or should until that day.  Her passion for family history and stories has helped thousands to preserve relationships and create a lasting legacy. Life Bio has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press stories, the Chicago Tribune, and she has appeared on numerous radio programs including Satellite Sisters, Life Online with Bob Parsons, and Coping with Caregiving. For more information visit

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