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Preserve Memories and Make Them Relevant to a Younger Generation

COVID-19 cleaning binges are turning up nostalgic treasures to share

Cindy Rovey hopes to get relatives interested in her family's history.

Courtesy of Cindy Rovey

Cindy Rovey hopes to get relatives interested in her family's history.

Millennials and Gen Zers feel right at home with quick-hit Instagram stories and TikTok videos. But there are ways to get them interested in the personal histories that can be gleaned from photo albums, scrapbooks and diaries.

As COVID-19-related cleaning binges turn up nostalgic treasures, now's the time to mitigate the risk of losing generations of family history and to captivate the interests of younger kin. That may mean finding subtle ways to attract their attention.

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"There are a lot of people our age with pictures in shoeboxes,” says Cindy Rovey, 73, of Sedona, Arizona. “Those pictures can be used to infuse a bit of history into the family through the back door.”

Make memories meaningful

Start by making your memories as relevant as possible to your audience and relaying them in small doses.

For example, when Rovey emailed her sister-in-law Becki some photos and descriptions from a cross-country trip they took when the two were much younger, Rovey copied her three children on the message as well.

"It was an opportunity to share some information with them without it being an actual lesson,” she explains. “They'll read three or four sentences. Sometimes I get a reply back or a question."

If the younger generation isn't asking questions that prompt discussion, craft narratives for them anyway, perhaps slipping them into anecdotes about when you were young

What was your favorite thing to do on weekends? How did you deal with getting teased in school? Why are you so frugal?

The answers to these kinds of questions — instead of boring data dumps about where you were born or where you grew up — attract the most attention, notes Cheryl Svensson, 73, director of the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies in Laguna Woods, California, and coauthor of Writing your Legacy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story.

One of Svensson's students, from Cork, Ireland, wrote a book for his grandchildren that traced the experiences he'd had at their ages.

"You understand things differently when you write, rather than just talking and rambling,” she says. “Writing gives you the wisdom to unpack how an experience impacted you, how maybe you view that incident differently now and were changed by it."

If you're stuck on what to talk about, consider using one or all of the categories Svensson calls “life themes": branching points (events, experiences or insights that shaped who you are), family, money, work, health and body image, gender identity, death and dying, spiritual life and values, goals and aspirations.

Gearing up for sharing

Adults spurred on by the coronavirus home clean-out are more motivated than ever to preserve their memories. This summer Old Movie Conversion, a Downers Grove, Illinois-based company which restores 8 mm and 16 mm movie films and videotapes before converting them into modern formats, recorded its busiest months in 30 years. The company has hired additional employees to keep up with demand.

Even so, “many, many conversations I have with clients about preserving family histories include some variation of: ‘My kids don't care, but I am hoping that someday they will change their minds,’ says owner Mark Chamberlain, 59.

Interest sometimes does arise the older the kids get, and time will tell whether they ultimately consider their parents’ memories a meaningful treasure trove — and potentially learn valuable life lessons in the process.

In the meantime, Chamberlain says that older generations must answer two questions: Are younger generations interested in saving their histories? And if they're not, how do we get them to want to?

Grandmother and grandchildren looking at photographs

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

There are numerous ways to preserve memories and share them with younger generations:

Use an app. Convert photo slides into high-quality digital images with apps such as SlideScan and Photomyne. Private personal journal and memoir app MemLife lets you add memories and photos to a timeline, organize life stages and — when you're ready — export a book. (This comes with hundreds of questions to get you started.)

Start a subscription. StoryWorth, a subscription-based service, emails recipients a question about their life once a week for a year (such as, “If you could have as much money as you wanted, what would you do with it?") and then includes the Q's and A's in a customized hardcover book with photos and captions. Create the book and forward to a younger relative.

Play a game. Our Moments: Generations is a Q&A card game with 100 conversation starters — such as “What was my mom or dad like when they were young?"— for grandchildren to ask their grandparents.

Go old-school. You can make copies of letters, photos or other memorabilia to share. “Computers, scanners, etc., make sharing much easier than in years past,” says Rovey of Arizona. “But there still are copy machines and the U.S. Postal Service."