Telling your life story as you get older

Sharing experiences from our lives can become more important as we get older. For some of us, it’s motivated by a desire to leave something of ourselves behind, a record of how we spent our time on Earth so that we’re not forgotten. For others, the process of telling our life story helps us make sense of how our past has brought us to where we are today.

A number of initiatives aim to help people work their way through this process. Because storytelling doesn’t come naturally to all of us, it can help to have some practical and (sometimes) emotional guidance.

Join a writers’ workshop

Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops help older adults – whether they’re living alone or in congregate settings – find purpose through writing their stories. They began as writing workshops offered by Angela Burton, a writer and teacher based in Louisville, Kentucky. Burton went on to train licensed facilitators to run the workshops in senior living communities in other parts of the US.

When COVID hit, she pivoted to make the program directly available to consumers online. Participants are given an opportunity to join Zoom-like writing groups, helping them feel less isolated during pandemic life.

Workshop participants are mailed kits to help them write down their life stories in a purposeful, easy-to-follow process. The mission of the program is to “help people find joy and purpose through writing their authentic life stories and connect with others to feel less alone, create friendships, to have a voice and be heard.” 

Write your own obituary

If you’re concerned what people will say about you after you die, you can actually write your own obituary. ObitKit is a guide that helps people write their own obituaries. It was created by Susan Soper, a long-time, award-winning journalist, and it’s sold about 10,000 copies.

This isn’t simply an attempt to control your image even after you’re gone, at least it doesn’t have to be. Many grieving families have only a day or two to write an obituary for the person they’ve lost, and coming up with the right words to encapsulate an entire life can be daunting to say the least.

Leaving behind a self-written obituary can relieve your family of that pressure after you die. Whether or not they chose to use it verbatim, it gives them a clear indication of what you considered important in your life. 

Obituaries used to be pretty standard, unless you were considered important enough to be written up by a reporter after your death. They simply included facts like career, family, education, military service. Now, you’re more likely to read obituaries that have a personal dimension to them. 

Today’s obits may include where a person liked to travel, what they liked to wear, what they liked to eat, their relationship with their pet, what their habits were, what their passions were, what their quirks were.

Soper teaches classes on how to write your own obituary. She’s run sessions for book clubs, study groups, churches, and the continuing education program at Emery University. 

She says that some of her students struggle at first because they don’t feel their lives are particularly noteworthy. “The goal of my class is to open up their minds about what they can say about themselves and be remembered for.”

Explore other resources for telling life stories

In Canada, Memories Into Stories – an initiative of Storytelling Toronto – offers a variety of links, downloadable articles, tip sheets, and videos to help people develop a deeper understanding of the connection between storytelling and memory.

StoryShare – a program run by Storytelling Alberta and featured by CBC News in September 2020 – connects volunteers with seniors via phone calls and video calls, “telling them stories and giving them an opportunity to tell one in return, to just chat or ask questions about how to access different resources. Volunteers speak English, Spanish, Dutch and Urdu, helping seniors from different background and cultures connect.”

Have you heard about our best-selling book, Breadcrumbs? Drawing on our clients stories and experiences, our hope is that families will know they are not alone in this journey! For more information click here.

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