Why Write: What We’ve Learned
Our personal experience teaching autobiography workshops to older adults confirms what research has found: that the process boosts their self-esteem, reconnects people with family and improves well-being. Here are some lessons we’ve learned in the workshops:
Working in groups helps. As participants read their stories to one another, they spark memories in their classmates. They also get to know one another on a more personal level, creating social networks that improve their well-being.
- There is no wrong approach to writing a life story. Many participants say, “Oh, my life isn’t that interesting,” or “I just don’t know where to start.” We encourage participants to start with their own interests. The family cook may want to talk about significant family recipes and what they have meant; a gardener may want to talk about various plants; a traveler about places. We emphasize that chronological is not always the best way to do a life story. It can be overwhelming for many people.
- Older people love to talk. A major challenge is to get the story written down, to create a legacy for their family. In the first class, we do an in-class writing assignment to get them started and ask participants to read what they have written. In subsequent classes, we ask that people read what they have written, rather than sharing a story from memory.
Some older adults have difficulty with the fine motor skills of writing, and we encourage them to talk into a voice recorder or dictate the story to a friend or instructor (if the instructor has time).
- We caution participants to be careful of “boo birds,” those who would discourage them from writing. We also talk about how to deal with painful memories. They may face them if they feel ready or they may focus on good memories. It is their choice. And finally, we point out that their perspective might be different from those of siblings or other family members. This does not negate their experience. Their story is their story, not anyone else’s.
Dr. Claudia Collins, associate professor and aging specialist for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, has published an article on best practices with autobiography workshops, Autobiography Workshops: Personal Narrative as a Wellness Tool for the Elderly.