Family History isn’t Just Your Grandma’s Hobby – How Anyone Can Turn Family History into a Fun Game

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family-history-isnt-just-your-grandmas-hobby-how-anyone-can-turn-family-history-into-a-fun-gameMeet my mother Shirley. She was sixteen when this photo was taken (image on left).

About five years ago, my sister and I began to notice our 85 year old mom was beginning to struggle with short term memory loss, which caused her to feel anxious and frustrated. Our visits became increasingly difficult and stressful. Being a couple of problem-solving, newly-retired teachers, we tried to find better ways to communicate with mom, which would help ease her anxiety.

We began by going through old family photo albums and bringing a few photos with us when we visited. What we discovered was incredible.

If we asked very specific questions about the photographs, mom was able to remember more and share richly-detailed long term memories. Not only was she able to access her memories, but the act of doing so brought out the girlish, fun-loving, sweet side of mom we had always loved!

This process is what we like to call the power of emotional memory.

Soon after we discovered the power of emotional memory, our visits with mom became enjoyable and more meaningful. After each visit, we left with new family stories we had never heard before!

This unique power of the human brain was discussed in a recent study in the Journal of Psychological Science. In her study, Dr. Karen Henkel implores us to consider the long term importance of photos.

Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organization of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them. In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them. — Dr. Karen Henkel.

So we decided to structure our visits even more around memories. That’s when we created a reminiscence tool called LifeTimes the Game of Reminiscence, which is now used by families around the world. It’s also a foundation for reminiscence programs for the elderly across Canada and the United States. For elderly family members, the game is a fun way to ignite memories and encourage feelings of self worth.

In order to spark conversation among family members and catalyze meaningful memories, we included a variety of topical questions. Here are just a few of the topics that we covered:

  • Family Life
  • Food and Recipes
  • Love and Romance
  • Leisure Time

These topics are starting points and will encourage your family members to talk and share more naturally. What we discovered is that telling stories and sharing experiences strengthens family bonds in a fun way!

In addition to using our own family photos, we began visiting vintage stores and flea markets to find more photos for what would become part of our iOS app, LifetimesTALK, which uses vintage photos and prompts to ignite family stories. We found that even if the people in these old photos were not our own family, they still held the power to evoke memories of days gone by.


For families and multi-generational groups, playing LifeTimes The Game Of Reminiscence strengthens bonds of family and friendship. Relive experiences, pass on personal histories and enjoy remembering moments together – you’ll learn about loved ones in new and unexpected ways.

So we encourage you to visit a loved one today. Take along a photo; ask a few questions; listen to a few good stories. You’ll probably learn something new about your family!

family-history-isnt-just-your-grandmas-hobby-how-anyone-can-turn-family-history-into-a-fun-game-1About the authors: Carol and Mary Jane McPhee are sisters who noticed a decline in their elderly motherʼs ability to process and retrieve information. This came with a noticeable change in her emotional state as she frequently appeared frustrated. Visits with her became challenging. Then the sisters discovered a key to communicating with their mom —talking to her about her childhood home. That single conversation unlocked the door to their mom’s memories. This experience changed the way the sisters communicated with their mom. Armed with vintage photos, music from her era, and prompts to direct her thoughts, they began a systematic exploration of ways to reminiscence. Through a series of prompts covering a variety of categories, they were able to collect a rich and detailed family history through their momʼs stories. The seed for LifeTimes The Game Of Reminiscence was planted! You can find Carol and Mary Jane on Instagram, Twitter and via their helpful website

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