By Myrtle A. Klauer, AP-BC, ADC, CAP, Secretary/ Treasurer
Life stories can provide unique insights into the lives of the residents we interact with every day. Helping residents write their life stories is a formal way to record their memories and historical information for future generations. This is especially valuable for the families of residents with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Studies show one’s long-term memory remains well into the progression of dementia. Meet with the resident’s family and ask for their help developing clues for unlocking their loved one’s memory. The information gathered as you write the resident’s life story can also help the interdisciplinary team have a better understanding of how and what shaped this individual.
Benefits of Life Stories
Writing residents’ life stories begins with reminiscing. It helps the writer collect and record the past experiences and events that took place during the resident’s lifetime. Reminiscing has a profound effect on residents, especially those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Reminiscing can also be a mechanism for change. When the interdisciplinary team understands what triggers specific behaviors, they can endeavor to avoid the trigger. Reminiscing can also help the resident sum up his or her life and put various pieces in order. Through this process, the resident can achieve peace and harmony.
Life stories can help preserve a resident’s personal and collective history. As the resident’s life story is written, the reminiscing can have a calming effect on the resident. Generally, the memories being shared are pleasant; however, activity professionals need to be prepared for situations when bad memories surface and disturb the resident. The resident’s feelings of integrity and self-worth can increase as his or her life story is written. The story helps validate the resident’s contributions, interests and feelings. As the resident recalls events, his or her senses are stimulated. It also takes concentration and an increased attention span to participate in writing one’s life story. Whether parts of this project are done in a group or as a one-to-one visit, the residents’ sense of pride, accomplishment, satisfaction, enjoyment and enthusiasm are heightened. No matter what approach you use, the resident has an opportunity for increased socialization and self satisfaction.
Everyone benefits from life story projects. Many times, the family discovers facts about their loved one, or other members of their family, they didn’t know before. Isolated residents and those with cognitive loss also have an activity they can participate in.
Writing the Residents’ Life Stories
There are many reference books and websites to help you get started writing life stories. As I researched this article, I found the following six suggestions for seniors interested in writing their life stories:
Write in small sketches of 5-10 minutes on specific topics, e.g., favorite holiday, first job, memorable world event, earliest childhood memory, etc.
Engage family members in the process. Invite correspondence, or ask a nearby relative to write down everything their loved one says about a specific subject, person or event.
Join a life story writing group. Reminiscing is more fun in a group. Enlist the help of enough volunteers to enable each volunteer to partner with a resident. Instruct the volunteers to write down everything the resident shares.
Ask the residents to share stories about how they participated in world history. Ask lead-in questions, e.g., Where were you when you heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor? How did you and your family spend the Great Depression years? Where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated?
Instruct the residents to write their own “ethical will.” Ask the residents to share their personal philosophies, mottos and core values they would like to leave as a legacy to their descendents. Have them explain how they learned these lessons or acquired these philosophies.
Ask someone in the family with computer skills to compile the stories of their loved one into a self-published life story. Invite this individual to scan family photos and other memorabilia into the life story as illustrations of their loved one’s life and memories.
These suggestions can be adapted for the residents with cognitive loss and others with short attention spans, or who are unable to work independently. To help evoke memories, you can use magazines, scrapbooks, family photo albums, the resident’s journal, memory/visiting kits, objects that appeal to the senses, etc. Use a lead-in question to begin the discussion – What was your first day of school like? You can also use a lead in statement, e.g., my favorite vacation spot is… Props can also begin an interactive conversation, e.g., basketball, wedding dress, cloth diaper, glass of cold lemonade, etc. Develop a Personal Profile form that can be completed by the resident and his or her family. This can be done over time and does not need to be done the day of admission. Ask the primary contact to share the form with other members of the family. This is especially helpful when the primary contact doesn’t know some of the answers and the resident is unable to help him or her. Instruct the primary contact to highlight the areas that need input from other family members or close friends of the resident.
A life story is a wonderful keepsake from the resident for his or her family to enjoy for years to come. The insight into the residents’ lives that you gain from completing this project is immeasurable. This is a chance to learn about history from the people who experienced it!