Better Together

Telling one's life story is good for you!

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.

At Friendship Village, a vibrant, resident-led creative writing group meets on the third Tuesday of the month. Local students have also interviewed and written stories about residents, many of whom are veterans, encapsulating their long and rich life experiences.

For those residents who want even more opportunities to tell their stories, the Schaumburg Writers Meetup Group meets weekly, as do other such groups in the nearby area. In December, the “Schaumburg Scribes” will meet at the Schaumburg Library to share their work and receive constructive feedback.

“There is great value in telling one’s life story. It is how we learn we are connected to each other and how families know their history,” said Friendship Village lifelong learning and volunteer services coordinator Jeannette Magdeleno. “It’s especially important for seniors to put their stories into perspective. They can look back at their lives with the eyes of wisdom.”

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.