"I can't work without the family," says Dawn Lakasmani, of Dallas-based Seniority Counseling. "But families are often overwhelmed by caregiving."
Lakasmani uses several different reminiscence therapy techniques with both her impaired and non-impaired clients.
"I often work with people, especially men, on getting back in touch with feelings of control and mastery," Lakasmani says.
Frequently, the clients tell her things they would never share with the family. "I worked with one man who was a highly decorated war hero, and yet his family knew nothing about this side of his life," she said.
Lakasmani uses reminiscence techniques to "let the patient go where he wants to go."
For caregivers, senior life story telling and gathering has been shown to reduce stress. And, the telling and sharing of stories enables caregivers to have a better understanding of client leading to improved care.
Reminiscence therapy leads to more and better communication, as well as a closer bond between residents in care facilities. In addition this type of activity may often surface problems that might otherwise remain undisclosed.
Seniors are getting "wired." Those 55 and over are the fastest-growing segment of the computer-buying public. More than 40% of adults 65 or older have a PC at home. Unbelievable as it sounds, an average retired senior who is online spends more time online than an average teenager.
Many seniors find that creating and uploading life their stories to the web is rewarding and enjoyable, whether at home, in a senior center, or a computer class. Often, capturing a senior's life story work brings a young family member with great computer skills together with a senior who has amazing life experiences.
Of course, most very elderly seniors won't have the computer skills to create their own life stories, but many caregivers, children and grandchildren have these skills and are willing to upload information. Everyone can benefit from the process of helping a senior reminisce about treasured life memories.
Print a checklist on how to gather information for senior life stories
How to Record an Elderly Person's Life Stories
Writing: One of the easiest ways to get a senior to capture their life story is to have them write it out longhand. Assembling a small group of seniors in a regular writing group builds camaraderie and support. It's useful to have a list of structured questions. The senior or their family member may wish to post information collected on a web site, where it is easily shared.
"I tell seniors not to be intimidated by feeling that they are not good writers, says gerontologist Levy. "I tell them that they will be surprised what good writers they are, and the feeling of intimidation fades."
Another alternative is the Guided Autobiography, developed by Dr. James Birren, founder of the University Of Southern California School Of Gerontology. The Guided Autobiography writing sessions are usually led by a facilitator who uses structured themes such as "Branching Points," "Money," "Life's Work," and others.
Interviews: Interviewing a senior about his or her life is a tool that may be more powerful in the hands of a caregiver than a family member. Ironically, seniors are often less reluctant to "open up" in front of strangers than family members. Interviews may be recorded on home analog or digital recorders or camcorders. Some families may opt for professional voice or videographer services.
"It's good and bad to interview ones own family. A grandfather will not tell a grandchild all of the nitty-gritty. They clean up the story," says historian Elliott-Scheinberg. "On the flip side, it's a wonderful experience for a student to interview his/her grandparents. It's hard for us to conceptualize our parents as children."
If a caregiver or family member can't or won't interview a senior, there is the option of hiring an experienced professional. One source for families to consider is the Association of Personal Historians, which has a database of about 600 experts who subscribe to a strict code of ethics. Costs and products vary, so the family should discuss all options and get commitments in writing.
"Talking with an independent person frees up the individual to discuss things that may not have been brought up for years," says Wright of History in Progress, who is also a member of the Association of Personal Historians.
"I'll never forget one 80-year old woman who sat on the couch and wept when I presented her story," Wright says. "She kept saying ‘I'm so glad I did this…I'm so glad I did this!'"