Sharing life stories keep memories alive for older people

Published7/7/2008 12:16 AM

The next time your husband or grandmother tells that story you've heard at least a gazillion times, think of as an important developmental stage of adulthood.

It turns out our brains our hard-wired for storytelling and reminiscing, with older adulthood a natural time to engage in those activities.


Growth doesn't stop in childhood, aging experts say. Just as healthy children have certain developmental stages they must progress through, so do older adults. Blame it on a part of our brains wired to form long-term memories, which encodes or processes them, distributing memories throughout the brain for more-or-less permanent storage. The hippocampus is the section of the brain contributing to our desire for autobiographical expression.

Gene Cohen, a physician and author of "The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain" (Perseus Books, $15.95), describes four phases within the second half of life. Phase III - usually in our 60s through 90s - is when we're driven to sum up our lives and share our wisdom.

"It may seem a little annoying listening to those stories of childhood over and over. In the past it was often taken as a sign of dementia," said Pat McNees of Washington, D.C., author of "Dying: A Book of Comfort" and vice president of the Association of Personal Historians. "But, in fact, this is a natural psychological process when we are trying to make some type of shape to our lives, to bring about some type of peaceful acceptance of our past."

Personal historians, like Diane Dassow in Lombard, are leading the way in helping us collect the fragments of our life stories and weaving them into a cohesive form. The telling of our stories, experts say, helps keep us healthy and whole.

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"I have not done any scientific studies, but I have noticed clients brighten when they are asked by the families to compile their personal histories. They seem to grow more confident, too, as they talk about their lives," said Dassow, founder and owner of Binding Legacies, who writes life stories for clients, ranging from a one-page life vignette to a bound history of 100 pages or more.

Dassow said an important benefit is that family members such as children and grandchildren become more interested in their relatives' lives. They ask questions about the people in old photographs, whereas before they had little interest in them.

"Personal history is a wonderful way to keep alive the memories, hopes, dreams, and values of our elders -to connect family members who live at a distance by sharing their common heritage," said Dassow. Â

Mary O'Brien Tyrell, a personal historian in Minnesota and author of "Stories Behind Life Stories," published in this month's Journal of Aging, Humanities and the Arts, a publication of the Gerontological Society of America, has observed family estrangements healed after reading an elder's life story, family bonds strengthened, even first-time family reunions planned.


Benefits of a written personal history can extend beyond a family network into the health care system, said Dana Burr Bradley, director of the Center for Gerontology at Western Kentucky University.

"One of the documented benefits is that a personal history allows the entire care profession and support systems to better understand the older adult and to see them not as a client, but as a person. That's particularly helpful in the absence of a close family member or if the older adult isn't able to communicate well with caregivers."

While experts document the health-giving benefits of looking back on a life lived, personal historians say that, scientific research or not, our stories need to be told and shared.

"Life stories want to be told," McNees said. "And all you have to do to know that sharing them produces health benefits is to witness one person going through the process. It's a joy to witness."

Telling your story

The Lutheran Home and Services in Arlington Heights Lunch and Learn series will feature a talk by Long Grove personal historian Jeri Monroe on "Your Life Story is Unique- a Gift -a Treasure" at 11 a.m. Thursday. To register or for details, call Linda Stammer, (847) 368-7403.

To contact Diane Dassow of Binding Legacies in Lombard, call (630) 932-1523 or visit

To get started in your own personal history research, Pat McNees suggests the following books:

"Your Life as Story: Discovering the 'New Autobiography' and Writing Memoir as Literature," by Tristine Rainer.

"The Legacy Guide: Capturing the Facts, Memories and Meaning of Your Life," by Carol Franco and Kent Lineback.

For more information on personal histories, visit the Association of Personal Historians at

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