The best Christmas present you can buy

By Susan Pierotti

Christmas is usually a time when families celebrate and interact. Kids’ joyful squeals of delight when they unwrap that longed-for present, adults enjoying a glass (or two) of champagne, grandma sitting in a corner smiling…

Ah, there’s a thought – what do you buy Grandma for Christmas? She’s got plenty of soap and perfume, she doesn’t need more clothes, she already has all the jewellery she wants. In fact, she doesn’t need any more ‘things’. What she would probably want is someone to sit with her and talk to her about herself, about her life, her aspirations, her dreams. She would like to know that her life had value, and that she won’t be forgotten by her grandchildren, or remembered merely as the ‘old lady in the corner at Christmas’.

Why not buy her the best present ever? Hire a life story teller to listen to her story and record it in her own words. Life story tellers can interview her in the comfort of her home. Precious memories can be recorded in print or on video, and favourite photos and objects can be photographed or filmed. She will feel valued, and the family will have a personal record of their grandma for long after her life has ended.

Here are 4 fabulous facts for employing a life story teller to record your elderly one’s memoirs.

1 Don’t wait till it’s too late

Don’t let your family memories, part of who you are, disappear with the ill-health of your older loved ones. Dementia Australia estimates that the number of Australians with dementia today (over 400,000) will double in the next 25 years. Another alarming fact is that dementia is the leading cause of death for Australian women. No one can predict when someone will lose their memory. By the time you see the symptoms in your parents, it’s too late to ask them about their life.

Why not organise to have their life story recorded for this Christmas?

2 Contribute to local history and culture

From the earliest days of cavemen, people have been sitting around the fire, telling stories of the hunt, the stars, how the world was created. These became part of our culture and history. Your elderly loved ones have lived in a world that is unrecognisable to their grandchildren. Telling their stories fills in gaps in local knowledge. Nowadays, we live mostly in cities where we don’t even know our neighbours. We need connections more than ever. Stories do that; they are an intrinsic part of our culture and need to be recorded.

3 Record their perspective

Joan Crawford was a famous Hollywood actress in the 1930s and ’40s and published her autobiography after she had adopted five children. A year after Joan died, her eldest child, Christina, told her own version of living with her mother in her book, Mommie Dearest. Her other siblings denounced it, but it became more famous that Joan’s original autobiography and was made into a movie. Whether it was ‘true’ or not, it was Christina’s version of her life. The only way people will know your loved one’s version is if they tell it.

Another reason to record your loved one’s stories is that it gives insight into their personality, their beliefs and aspirations. How did Grandma react to the Vietnam War? What did she think of her husband when she first met him? How did she feel when she cradled her first baby in her arms?

Wouldn’t you like to know?

4 Feeling valued

If you found lockdown restrictions trying, think of what it was like for people in our retirement homes and aged care facilities. Because of minimal physical contact, no one was sitting down with our elderly loved ones to have a cuppa and listen to them. Zoom, Facetime and other internet channels didn’t quite compare to having another human being with warmth and understanding being in the same room as them. The coronavirus crisis demonstrated more than ever the importance, even urgency, of recording our elderly loved ones’ stories – now.

As well as listening to what elderly loved ones have to say, facial cues and body language show that we are valuing their company and engender a feeling in them that they have achieved something, that their life has been worthwhile and that they will leave behind a treasured legacy.

So, if you are scratching your head wondering what to buy Grandma for Christmas, why not get the whole family to contribute to employing a life story teller to record your loved one’s life.

The curious thing is that this might also be the best Christmas present ever for every member of your family!