Once thought to be a useless activity or harmless pastime at best, seniors, families and caregivers increasingly recognize the value of reminiscences and life reflection. One of the first researchers to appreciate the power of life stories was Dr. Robert Butler, founder of the New York-based International Longevity Center. In a 1963 paper, he coined the term "Life Review."
"I was struck some years back by the fact that older people tended to review their life. At that time whenever people reminisced it was regarded by psychologists and psychiatrists as possible early signs of senility," Dr. Butler says. "But because we were studying vital, healthier older people, it struck me how important it was for people to come to grips with the kind of life they had led.
How Caregivers Can Keep Family History Intact
There is a growing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence that is helping seniors capture their stories. While not a formally recognized therapy it is a powerful medicine for the client, family, and caregiver. Research shows that family history writing or reminiscing improves self-esteem, enhances feelings of control and mastery over life, and often results an a new or expanded vision of one's life.
For very advanced-age clients, the chance to tell their stories improves cognition, lessens depression and dementia, and improves behavioral functioning."Writing shakes people out of their same old stories and makes them think differently about their lives," says Hope Levy of There's Always Hope, a San Francisco-based Geriatric Consultancy.
"Writing one's story not only boosts self esteem, reduces stress and anxiety, it is a powerful tool for a senior—or anyone—to visualize and create their future," Levy says.
Levy cites the example of one of her clients, a woman in her late 70's who felt depressed and anxious over her own perceived lack of accomplishments in life. Levy assigned her the exercise of writing a letter to herself as a young child. Then she wrote a letter from her younger self to her present self.
"When she finished with the assignment, she walked out on Cloud Nine," Levy recalls. "She did it without anybody else, just the writing and her own feedback."
"It's never too early or too late to begin, says Levy, who, in her 40's has worked in lifelong learning throughout her career. "Writing out your thoughts has so many more benefits than simply sitting down and thinking them."
Life writing activities may be done individually or in structured groups. In group activities, members are encouraged to prepare in advance information about family relationships, life accomplishments, school, work and major life turning points, purposes in life as well as legacies to leave to younger generations.
How to Remember an Elderly Parent's Life History
Phil Gibson didn't set out to revolutionize how seniors record their life stories. He was just having a dinnertime conversation.
In the summer of 2006, Gibson's mother-in-law mentioned that she had visited a friend in a rest home. She was disappointed that the woman had faded so much. "People didn't recognize how vibrant the woman had been," Gibson recalls. "She told me how she wished there was a bulletin board attached to her bed that was filled with her poems stories, and artwork so people could realize the zest she had when she was younger."
Shortly after his dinner with the in-laws, Gibson, 48, made another unexpected discovery.
"I was at dinner with a group of business friends. I was startled by the fact that every one of us had experienced a major life changing event with one of our parents or in-laws in the last three months," Gibson said. "In conversations, it was clear that none of us had prepared for losing that valuable connection to our histories and these very important people in our lives."
So Gibson, an expert Web technologist, began to create a new, easy-to-use site to collect senior and family stories. After nearly a year of development and testing, he launched a free online service called GreatLifeStories.com. The site guides anyone—caregivers, seniors, or family members—through the process of capturing, sharing and preserving the life stories of previous or current generations before they are lost forever.
These new technologies are the latest developments to give seniors, family members, and caregivers tools to help improve the mental, emotional, and physical health of older adults. As tools, they offer seniors a structured way of telling their life stories and passing their legacies along to children and grandchildren. And they often enable caregivers to be more compassionate, informed and effective.