Genealogy is a captivating hobby for people of all ages. Those who trace their roots often discover exciting stories and unexpected information that could have easily been lost forever.
For older adults, creating a family tree is a meaningful way to spend time with the younger generations in your family, including your grown children and grandkids. It also offers valuable mental stimulation, which can help you maintain cognitive function.
Fortunately, there are plenty of resources that make it possible to search records from all over the world from the comfort of home.
Tips to Get Started with Your Genealogy
1. Set a manageable first goal
Your goal may be to trace your full family back as far as you can, but in reality, that’s actually your final goal. Limit your goal to something you can accomplish in a reasonable amount of time. And be sure it is something you can measure.
For example, you could start by completing a three or four-generation ancestral pedigree chart. That means finding out all you can on yourself, your parents, your grandparents, and at least the names of your great-grandparents.
2. Start with what you know
Before you do anything, sit down with a pen and paper, and write down what you know. Fill in as much as you can. The absolute minimum you want for each person on your tree is their full name and when and where they were born, married, and if applicable, died.
3. Ask for family input
Once you’ve hit the limit of what you know, reach out to available family members and see what they can tell you. You may find that someone in your family has already done a lot of genealogical research, and you could spend hours duplicating that effort.
4. Keep records
There are dozens of genealogy software packages out there, but you’ll want to stick to pen and paper or a simple note-taking program on your computer at first. With the basic information you’re gathering, that’s all you’ll need at the start.
5. Use birth names
Always use maiden names (or birth names) and full given names. This will avoid a lot of confusion later. The same goes for any child who is adopted. It’s usually best to use his or her birth surname, if known. You may want to indicate nicknames on your chart, but know that most official records won’t use them.
6. Start with the census
Many genealogy beginners start with census records—and for good reason. These records are now digitized, searchable, easy to access online, and packed with useful information to start building your family tree.
7. Use genealogy websites
Many sites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch.org, allow you to build your family tree online. When you use Ancestry’s family tree builder, it automatically performs a lot of basic database searches for you. That saves time and effort and may find records you didn’t even think to look for. To get the most out of Ancestry, you’ll need a paid membership, but there are a lot of free features. FamilySearch is free.
8. Purchase software
If you’re ready to make a bigger commitment, there are a variety of computer programs you can use to organize your genealogy, ranging from free to expensive. Pick a less complicated program to start. You can always export your family tree from one program to another later.
Here are some favorites:
Family Tree Builder: best free genealogy software
RootsMagic: most popular amongst genealogists
Legacy: best option for a wide range of reporting features
Family Historian: best option for beginners and for those not tech savvy
Family Tree Maker: offers every feature you’ll need, without going overboard, and with tons of how-to guides on the web
9. Consider a DNA test
When you are unable to find information to go back any further in your family tree, DNA testing might help you break through these research barriers. You have many options in choosing a DNA testing company, with each company offering a different experience and focus.
Digging up your family roots is easier than ever, and you don’t have to devote an enormous amount of time to it, either. Set simple goals, start a family tree, and reach out to your relatives. Whatever you do, don’t wait until “someday” when you may not have the time. Start your journey now!