Stories: they shape our recollections of loved ones and can make strangers feel like friends. They memorialize those we hold dear – allowing them to remain with us long after they’re gone. They give us a glimpse of history that can’t be found in books. In recent years, technological advances have provided new, easy and structured ways for seniors to tell stories by recording their memories with electronic devices. According to Paula Stahel, president of the Association of Personal Historians, seniors in particular are seeking to record their stories at an increasing rate. She said this rising interest may be due to the change in family structures. “We’d see our aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins regularly [in the past],” she said. “Today’s retirees pick up and move someplace else, or their children take jobs in distant cities, so we don’t have the experience of living the stories together.”
David O’Neil, a personal historian, said that most often it is baby boomers with children and aging parents who are most interested in recording these stories. “They look at their parents and their children and wonder, ‘What are my children going to remember about my own parents, and how do I capture and preserve their life stories? As the World War II generation passes away, there are a lot of efforts to record their stories.”
Seniors, their families, and caregivers can use tools like smart phones, tablets, video cameras, and other devices to easily record and archive stories. It may help to hire a professional who is skilled in interviewing and can shape the responses into a narrative, while also providing the senior with a fresh audience for the stories. Hope Levy, of There’s Always Hope, a San Francisco-based Geriatric Consultancy, said seniors can also benefit from bringing their memories to life in writing.
“Writing shakes people out of their same old stories and makes them think differently about their lives,” Levy said. “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.”
Dr. Wendy Scheinberg-Elliot, a professor of history at California State University Fullerton, teaches students how to gather oral histories, and said that talking with seniors strengthens relationships among family members. “Oral history is very bonding… it creates a sense of oneness with the seniors,” she said. “The effects on seniors are empowering. They realize that they have stories to tell; parts of their life. Students are usually totally unaware of what life was like even a few decades ago.”
Not only is it important for seniors to share their stories for their legacies’ sake, it can also impact their mental, emotional, and physical health in a positive way. According to AgingCare.com, writing about family history or reminiscing improves self-esteem, enhances feelings of control over one’s life, and often results in an improved outlook on life in general. Telling stories also improves cognitive activity, and can lessen the effects of depression and dementia.
The Living Legacy Project
Amada Senior Care understands the importance of reserving the stories and memories of our senior loved ones, which is why Amada partners with The Living Legacy Project. Founded in 2008, The Living Legacy Project provides an easy way to “reminisce with purpose,” and record stories that can be paired with old family photos and stored in a convenient app or blog.
“The greatest body of wisdom in history, experienced in the 20th century, is now threatened with extinction as millions of baby boomers and their parents pass away,” said Tom Cormier, co-founder of The Living Legacy Project. “Imagine the consequences if we continue to sit idly by and lose this irreplaceable wealth of life lessons and values.”
With the Legacy Stories Reminiscence Program, weekly legacy questions are sent via email. Participants answer the questions in story form using the IOS or Android app or by writing in their Legacy Story blog. The program is meant to be self-guided and easily integrated into daily life, usually taking just a few minutes a day. The story prompts begin with conversations about their ancestors, move on to early childhood, and continue chronologically through all the major stages of life. Participants will share about things like faith, family, careers, military service, life changing events, and special people that impacted their lives. The portfolio is free to start on LegacyStories.org and can be shared with others, or even made into a book.
The Living Legacy Project hopes to bring awareness to the urgent issue of preserving seniors’ priceless memories and to mobilize families, groups, communities, and businesses to take action. “These stories give life to those in old family photos, that otherwise may be strangers to grandchildren,” Cormier said. “Future generations can learn about real-life heroes right there in their own family.”
“Saving a Generation: Preserving the Stories of Senior Loved Ones,” written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.