Learning through experiences and memories of the elderly

“Just a few years ago…[my dad] came to my class and talked to my students. That was the first time I’d heard any of those stories [that he told],” remarked history teacher Elizabeth Van Pilsum. “I just thought ‘Wow, what a resource’ and ‘What have I been doing all these years, not asking the person right in front of me every day?’ It’s living history.”

“After hearing him talk to my students, I heard this great story and wealth of information for the first time. Then, on long car drives I would interview him more closely: ‘Tell me more about when you enlisted in the Navy. Tell me about when you were in college.’ I wanted to know what his dorm was like…I wanted to know if he was afraid on that ship [in the navy]…I think it kept him going,” she said. “Towards the end of this life, he told stories more and more and more, and I think it’s a way for [the elderly] to know that when they’re gone, their stories won’t be gone, their life will be remembered.”

Van Pilsum’s dad passed away this school year. Each conversation she had with him has brought her more understanding about her what her dad was like during different parts of his life.

“To think of him as a teacher and a college student…a sailor in the Navy…for me it’s a bigger picture of my dad, and my dad as a person, and not just ‘my dad,'” Van Pilsum said. 

Everyday, opportunities to learn from the elderly arise. Senior citizens (over age 65) make up about 13.3 percent of the United States population, according to a census taken by the Census Bureau in 2011. That’s over one tenth of the population, filled with the wisdom that comes from age and experience. Often the elderly are the primary sources of historical events, as they are the ones who actually lived them. The elderly also play an important role in helping to raise and support grandchildren. Oral history is another reason why elders are important, as without them, it wouldn’t even be possible.

StoryCorps is an organization dedicated to documenting and preserving the special memories and experiences of elderly individuals.
StoryCorps is an organization dedicated to documenting the life experiences of elderly individuals. Their mission is to “provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives.” 

“[Oral history] allows [people] to research and learn about the past from the people who lived it,” said Alise Hansen, a spokesperson from the oral history office at the Minnesota Historical Society. “It can also be a really powerful inter-generational experience that can enhance relationships too.”

Van Pilsum said, “Oral storytelling is as old as humans are. Before the written word, people would pass down skills, traditions, recipes, survival skills: orally.”

Telling stories and hearing stories are all parts of being human, but the stories that grandparents can tell are a resource that should be taken advantage of, especially because the elderly are often declining in health.

“Grandparents definitely have a wealth of advice to share,” said Hansen. “It’s important to sit down and give them some time, and listen. You never know what you’re gonna learn.”

Many students who worked at elderly homes during CFE week understand how interesting and enjoyable conversations with the elderly can be.

Freshman Alison MacLeod visited Augustana Health Care Center. “This guy named David, who sang in Swedish [was one of my favorites]. He was fun to talk to, even though I didn’t understand some of it,” said MacLeod, her face full of simple joy at the memory. “[We talked about] football and he explained about his Swedish heritage.”

The opportunity to speak to and learn about history from grandparents is an opportunity that cannot be missed. Once someone passes away, they leave behind their legacy, but if no one has heard their stories, then they are lost.

This Thanksgiving, take the time to cherish the elderly around you and have conversations with them. They won't be around forever.
This Thanksgiving, StoryCorps is encouraging students to take the time to cherish their grandparents and have conversations with them. The recorded interviews will be archived in the Library of Congress. #TheGreatListen2015

“My grandmother…lived 95 years. I didn’t ask her anything [about her life],” said Van Pilsum. “I was shy because I was in high school, her hearing was bad, and my mom would say ‘Go talk to your grandma…she’s led a long life. Ask her questions.’ And I was too shy and I didn’t. And so, I just wish…I could go back in time and spend those last few years with her. ‘Tell me about the conversations with the Civil War vets. What was it like living through World War I?’ I wish I would have asked her…I was intimidated and I didn’t get her story, so that’s one of the regrets I have.”

Van Pilsum believes that this regret is part of the reason why she tried so hard to get stories from her dad before he passed away. Teenagers who still have grandparents should take the time to listen to their stories and learn about their life, because the feeling of regret later on is painful. 

MacLeod has special memories of conversations with her grandparents. “My Grandma on my Dad’s side went to a boarding school in Ireland, and her dad had a twin. So, one time she didn’t know the difference between them because she was really little, and she’d never know if it was her dad or her uncle picking her up [from school],” said MacLeod, laughing.

Stories are precious, especially when they come from loved ones.

“I think [stories are] one of those common human experiences,” said Hansen. “We all tell stories, we all hear stories, we all make up stories about our lives….It’s kind of how we make sense of our lives: through stories. It’s just the fact that it’s this shared, common human experience that brings people together that makes [stories] so powerful.”

Click the link below to learn more about StoryCorps, get ideas for interviewing questions, and see how you can participate in The Great Thanksgiving Listen:


Stay tuned! A special video highlighting the conversations that students had with their grandparents on Grandpeople Day will soon be posted.


About Emma Melling

Emma is a senior staff writer and editor-in-chief of the Talon. She is passionate about journalism, writing, literature, and French. Emma plans to attend Bethel University in the fall and double major in English and Journalism. She enjoys writing features on arts and human interest topics and loves listening to people's stories. Her hobbies include reading, hiking and spending time with family.

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