A life lesson learned from my Great Aunt Muriel

We should not overlook their wealth of experience and insight, as well as the opportunity to participate in a storytelling culture that we can pass down.

The passing down of stories and family traditions from the old to the young has been around forever, forming an important part of how we define our families. In many ways our elders hold the key to our family heritage, and this I learned in emphatic fashion when I visited a family member during a stay in London a few years ago.


I had been in the UK for quite a while and had been putting off visiting my Aunt Muriel for months. Soon it would be time for me to return to South Africa and I couldn’t in good conscience leave without seeing her, so reluctantly I arranged a visit. I arrived just after 11am and was hoping that I would be able to leave shortly after lunch. I ended up almost missing the last train late that evening.


I hadn’t seen my 94 year old great aunt since I was a child, so I was expecting an awkward, unexciting afternoon; it was anything but. For the next eleven enthralling hours we spoke about everything under the sun. In her clipped Queen’s English she told me about her experiences of having to run for the bomb shelters during WWII (while pregnant!) and enduring food rations.


She gave me new insights on my parents; a neutral perspective on what it was like for my mother growing up, how she met my father, and other touching pieces of family history that I would otherwise not have known. She told me stories that, although they predated me, were part of who I am. As the hour grew late, I had to tear myself away in order to catch my train. I had thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon, and I could see that Aunt Muriel had too.


These days, the ease of access to information, and perhaps the frenetic pace of modern living, means that all too often we neglect to engage with our more senior family members in a meaningful way. We should not overlook their wealth of experience and insight, as well as the opportunity to participate in a storytelling culture that we can pass down.


A month after my visit with my great aunt I was back in South Africa. I never saw her again. When I think back fondly to that day we spent together, I can’t help feeling a hint of sadness for not having visited her more often during my time in London. I know she would have appreciated it, and I would have been richer for it.

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