“One of the markers of a life well lived must surely be the stories, experiences and memories that are told, retold, remembered and re-experienced throughout the life span,” said Kathleen Adams of the Center for Journal Therapy in Denver which conducts life story writing programs for seniors.
The Grub Street Memoir Project in Boston has recently published its second anthology My Legacy is Simple. The first is titled Born Before Plastic. Alexis Rizzuto, the Memoir Project manager and senior writing coach, says that two striking features of both books are the ability of the seniors to make their stories “come alive” and the “profound sense of place” their stories of Boston contain.
But helping seniors to access and record their memories can be difficult. Adams recalled a woman named Goggie who, at age 86 at the urging of her granddaughter, began a memoir of growing up on a homestead in the Wild West. “By the time Goggie reached her 90s, dementia had stolen her ability to write or even tell her own stories,” said Adams. Any senior embarking on a project like Goggie’s can expect to experience some memory issues even if they are less severe than hers.
Seniors may find that despite their best efforts there are stories that they can remember only partially – or not at all. Psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch said that when she wrote her memoir Confrontations With Myself: An Epilogue, “Sometimes only the emotional atmosphere has been retained and the actual situation had to be reconstructed.” Rather than allowing yourself to be blocked by what you can’t remember, write your story about the parts you can recall.
The help of families of seniors undertaking life story projects is essential. When Goggie’s memory began to fail, “Her daughters and grandchildren filled in the gaps, writing and telling those stories most familiar and beloved from their own experiences, and scribing Goggie’s faltering reminiscences,” said Adams. The result was a “family heirloom” a hand-made treasure of a book that was passed on to the 13 great-grandchildren.
One of the most important results of life writing for seniors says Anne Flaxman, who teaches writing in Fairfield, Connecticut, “is the way these people begin to see their lives as jewels that have been polished through time and experience and living. They begin to see the beauty and uniqueness that their life has represented.
Eighty-six year old Joseph Raba of Pinhurst, North Carolina, who collaborated with his brothers and sisters on a tribute to their parents expressed this feeling about the result. “To me, this book is worth its weight in gold. Every time I open it, more memories come back to me.”