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More and more, research is showing that writing is good for seniors, particularly if the subject is their own lives. Telling one’s life story, whether in written or oral form, is therapeutic not only for the one sharing it, but also their loved ones and future generations. What a gift, given that so many of us wish we’d known more and asked more questions about our family members.
That may all be changing.
According to the New York Times, “Whether they are writing full-blown memoirs or more modest sketches or vignettes, many older people are telling their life stories.” What’s more, some are participating in traditional and online writing workshops, guided autobiography classes, writing legacy letters, or hiring personal historians to weave their life tales and lessons into a digital tapestry, mainly for the sake of posterity.
The benefits of telling one’s personal history are many – both physically and emotionally. Gerontologist James E. Birren, who created the discipline of guided autobiography, asserts that reminiscing can improve seniors’ confidence by helping them to realize how they’ve overcome past obstacles. It also enables them to better confront new challenges. Additionally, making a record of memories gives older adults self-assurance when they may no longer be able to do what they once could.
“[Some seniors] may have lost the ability to be in physical control, but when they share their stories, their bodies go back there,” said Dr. Montross-Thomas, assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego.
Other studies have found that, because of the clarity that can result from putting one’s thoughts in order, sharing life stories can relieve stress and bring a sense of calm to older adults. It can also encourage them to see things from other perspectives, helping them to more effectively solve conflicts.
There is also compelling evidence that writing about emotionally significant life events may help physical wounds heal faster. A study out of the University of Auckland asked seniors who were soon to have biopsies to write for 20 minutes a day for three days. One group was encouraged to be as open as possible, while the second was advised to avoid traumatic or emotional subjects. The study showed that those who were told to write more openly fully healed from their biopsy wounds after 11 days. Only 46 percent of the group that was told to withhold feelings were healed in that amount of time.
Researchers surmise that these results were most likely due to the lower stress hormone levels (and, thus, decreased anxiety) associated with writing, as the considered expression of emotions and even difficult experiences is physically and psychologically therapeutic.
Staff and residents of GreenFields of Geneva are well-versed in the benefits of telling one’s life story, or parts of it. A series called Lifelong Legacy Fireside Chats that attracts about 75 residents each month began on the 85th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first fireside chat on March 12, 1933. A portable fireplace is even brought into Friendship Hall to create a living room scene!
This series highlights a different resident each month, with fellow residents conducting interviews of the featured resident. Residents are free to choose a specific area of their life or theme to focus on, since each session is limited to an hour.
“Every resident has a story to tell, and I love providing a venue for them to do so,” said GreenFields life enrichment coordinator Emily Abrahamson. “It’s fun for the residents to learn about their neighbor’s lives before GreenFields, and these conversations can also spark new friendships.”
For those residents who want even more opportunities to tell their stories, Geneva and nearby suburbs are home to over 20 longtime local writing groups. Recently, the Geneva Library hosted an event at which several of them described their groups and encouraged others to join.
As we enter the season of Thanksgiving and the December holidays, what could be more meaningful than knowing our elder loved ones’ rich and storied histories? For years to come, these are the gifts that truly keep on giving.