I convinced people to hook up to electricity – they didn’t think they needed it.
God whispered, “You’re going to marry that girl.” I answered, “She’s not my type.”
Our office was the first to use email for a government experiment, before the Internet…
As these Tennesseans wrote their life stories, they experienced four holistic health benefits: identity integrity, connectedness, empowerment, and the big one: finding the meaning of life. Beginning in the 1960s, psychologist have studied the benefits of life story review. Whether you tell, record, or write your memories, such activity inspires “creativity, generativity and spirituality; and…identity exploration and problem-solving,” reported the Berkley Longitudinal Study of Aging (1997).
Identity Integrity: Who Am I?
When you tell the significant moments of life, you come to terms with your identity. “I never knew my life was so interesting until I wrote about it!” said one memoir writer. Recalling your life reminds you of who you used to be, assisting with ego integrity. From Scotland’s story groups about soccer to memento road shows in Brentwood, seniors are finding ways to recall their stories. One study showed increase in cognitive functioning and lessening of symptoms of depression using reminiscence therapy. Memory care facilities experiment with personal displays, scrapbooks and story to assist patients with identity and memory. They are finding this also improves communication between patient and caretaker. Story makes us more human.
Preserving your life story leaves a meaningful legacy that provides intergenerational connectedness. Thaddeus Martin’s memoir detailed woodworking medals, radio, autos, warships, and RV vacations. Sighing, “That’s the Gist of It,” as he ended his tale, the phrase became the book’s title. At his 99th birthday party, Thad gave copies to his Hendersonville family. Read aloud, excerpts from his memoir later became the highlight of his funeral service.
There are benefits for the receivers of memoir, too. “Research indicates that grandparents can provide the benefits of better emotional well-bring and identity achievement to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren by writing their life story and sharing it with the family,” says Cheryl Svensson, director of the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies. “For children, it makes the grandparents more real, helping them talk and relate to the grandparents too.”
At Nashville’s Cane Ridge High School, created writing students crafted presentations of life stories of a relative in an older generation. “I never knew that about my uncle,” marveled one, as she read us a story from his days in Vietnam. My Aunt Frances’ story, “I was a Different Child,” about choices made in the early 1960s, was what I used for the project model. Students enjoyed hearing about classmate’s families; reminiscence in groups is an excellent way to introduce people. It combats isolation and promotes self-esteem and self-understanding at any age.
Franklin, Tennessee author Kimberly Armstrong utilizes the power of life story recall to assist the non-profit Dress for Success program. “I ask women to write about themselves and their accomplishments through a series of questions. When they remember the times they were strong and successful, it sets a great tone for getting back into the workforce.” Reminiscence professionals call this “changing the narrative.” Recalling triumphs builds a path for more victories to follow. Psychologists have been studying the benefits of life recall since the early 1960s with traumatized soldiers, rape victims, and the severely depressed, with encouraging results.
Finding the Meaning of Life
“I can see the miracles in my life more clearly,” said Robert, a retired economist from Kentucky whose California daughter encouraged him to write his memoir. “I feel a great peace now that I’ve written my story,” he says. Robert’s book tells of his impactful career and positive life choices despite the influence of an alcoholic father. “Never give up on love,” was his conclusion. Considering and preserving life story transmits wisdom learned throughout a lifetime. A life review gives new significance and meaning to life. Conclusions are unique to each person.
“Life reminiscence is a tool for understanding one’s life and making meaning of it,” reported a 2018 Reminiscence and Life Review Conference speaker who assists hospice patients with life review. “The dying want connection, want to know the worth of their lives; they want communication. ‘I want to speak my truth and my truth be heard,’ said one hospice patient.” Professional end-of-life reminiscence using a few significant questions can alleviate suffering, if not pain.
Local life-story-telling groups and events, memoir writing workshops; and professional ghostwriters, personal historians, and some therapists facilitate the telling and recording of your life story. As a ghostwriter who has helped with more than 25 books for seniors and their family, I have learned one surety: The time to tell is now.
Deborah Wilbrink is a personal historian, ghostwriter and speaker who specializes in saving life story in heritage memoir and family history books. Contact her at her Nashville business, Perfect Memoirs. Contact her for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-417-8424. Benefits in this story are research-based and borne out by the authors’ anecdotal experience.