While shows like TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and PBS’ Finding Your Roots have definitely contributed to the popularity of researching our ancestry, people have always been curious about their family heritage. It’s human nature to want to know where we come from and who we come from.
As it turns out, exploring genealogy makes an excellent hobby, especially for older adults. It’s something that’s accessible to anyone with an internet connection. It can be enjoyed from the comfort of home. And it offers many other social and emotional benefits:
Sense of Purpose
Many older people find themselves at a bit of a loss for what to do with their days. It’s not unusual for recent retirees to fall into depression during the transition from long-time work routines into a so-called life of leisure. Researching family history can provide an intriguing focus that ignites the imagination. Any family’s story is likely to be filled with many small mysteries and discoveries that can keep a person engaged for a long, long time.
Deeper Personal Identity
Everyone wants to belong, and learning about ancestors is a wonderful way to ground an individual’s life within a greater context of time and place. Tracing family roots back through generations can help a person connect more deeply with a sense of self by learning about their family’s past—where they came from, who they were, what they did, the trials they overcame, the accomplishments they achieved, the dreams they had.
In addition to staving off boredom and ennui, researching genealogy encourages the development of new skills (such as working with computers) and provides valuable opportunities to improve cognition and self esteem. Reminiscing and exploring the unknown past can have deep psychological benefits for older people, giving them a chance to reconnect with their own memories while also learning new things about family members they never knew. Some studies have shown that reminiscing can actually lower a person’s blood pressure and heart rate.
Researching genealogy can make a great family activity, involving siblings, children, and grandchildren. It can bring family members together around a shared interest and also inspire intergenerational storytelling and sharing. Learning about common ancestors has a way of opening up doors of communication. Sometimes, research will even end up reconnecting long-lost relatives in surprising ways.
In some cases, there’s an opportunity to collect family medical information, either from living relatives or by uncovering health information from records about ancestors. This information can be helpful in identifying potential risk factors for surviving family members.
Finally, because researching family history is such a popular hobby, it offers the chance to meet other people who are likewise engaged in learning about their own families. There are plenty of online groups and forums that can offer conversation and community. Some researchers wind up turning their family histories into other projects as well—a talk at the local library or senior center, a history lesson for local school children, or a memento book for family members.
As we get older, we realize the importance of family, not just the people we grew up with or raised, but the broad extended family of great aunts, third cousins twice removed, and great-great-great-great grandparents. There is much to be said for looking back on the generations that came before. Even though they are long gone, they may still have much to teach us about our families, about history, and about ourselves.
While sites like Ancestry.com are widely known as go-to resources for people wanting to learn about their family history, there are many other resources as well. The National Archives has an entire section of their website dedicated to genealogy, including an extensive collection of Census documents. The Ellis Island Foundation allows you to search passenger lists. And there are many other non-government resources as well, such as Cyndi’s List. There are so many places to begin a search, and no telling where it might lead. The prospect is quite exciting.