Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
By Alan D. Bergman
Bringing our own life stories, memories and past to the forefront yields many significant, valuable benefits from a health standpoint and for family connectivity purposes. This becomes especially true as our population ages and lives longer, and seniors make up a greater percentage of our total number.
Although nine out of 10 of us would probably deny having a very interesting life story, the truth is that when our past pours forth from our lips, the tales often become engaging and even riveting. From my vantage point as a biographer and personal historian, I have yet to meet any adult without somewhat of a compelling life story to share.
From strictly a health standpoint, recalling our past and recording it on an audio or audiovisual device, or committing it to paper for one’s self or for publication, serves as a catalyst for stimulating our mind muscle. Mental health professionals are increasingly using storytelling as a tool to preserve and even improve their patients’ cognitive brain functions.
Recent studies have shown that, especially for seniors, digging deep to share memories has these health benefits, among others:
- Writing or speaking about the past stimulates and flexes our brain’s cognitive muscles and creates the potential to slow the progression of memory diminishment and cognitive decline.
- Our speech, language and writing skills generated within the brain are activated and engaged and motivate us to “reach” for vocabulary and certain terms to adequately and properly express ourselves.
- Recalling stories, orally or in writing, is an excellent therapeutic practice as it provides us the chance to better understand emotional, stressful or painful situations that had occurred in past months, years or decades.
- Bringing forth highlights and experiences from our past on a daily basis provides both structure and routine, like exercising our brain and cognitive abilities, ideally a few days weekly.
In my own experience writing seniors’ memoirs and biographies, time and time again, my clients have asked me to move up a previously-scheduled interview date and time. These individuals seem to find the interviews in which we discuss their past amazingly cathartic and gratifying. I almost always receive a heartfelt thanks at the interviews’ end.
In addition to the health benefits, sharing our life stories serves the vital purpose of connecting the different generations of our families. How many of us have a gnawing regret that we never asked our father about his World War II experience or asked our grandmother why she was divorced in 1925 (scandalous in that era) or inquired how our parents first met?
The sad truth is that we all have our expiration dates, and not sharing our family histories and life stories can easily mean that this information becomes forever lost.
Not only seniors, but baby boomers, too, have become aware of this fact, as shown in a study commissioned by Allianz Life Insurance Company. The study found that baby boomers place more value on family history, values and life lessons that can be passed on to their children and less importance on financial inheritance for subsequent generations.
Talk show host, actress and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey has acknowledged the importance of capturing and saving our life stories, saying, “I urge you to pursue preserving your personal history to allow your children and grandchildren to know who you were as a child and what your hopes and dreams were.”
Research conducted by psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University found that children who possess a basic knowledge of their family history appear to enjoy better emotional health. In asking nearly 50 families questions about their history, the two researchers learned that the more the children knew, the stronger their sense of control over their own lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.
The ever-increasing interest in genealogy and learning about our roots fits nicely with capturing our own and our elders’ life stories. While genealogical data provides the skeleton’s bones – who our forefathers were, when they arrived on these shores, what ship brought them to America – it is biography and life stories that put the meat on those bones. Capturing and retelling the details of life stories, and creating our biographies, brings genealogical data to life, making it colorful and exciting.
In my own family, I’ve learned that upon coming to the U.S. more than a century ago, my grandfather initially slept on a relative’s fire escape on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and my grandmother attended night school to learn English with her two young sons perched on her lap.
Our life stories are a genuine treasure that connects the past to the present and gives future generations a more thorough understanding of who their families are (and were). It helps our children and their children become aware of what our descendants achieved and sacrificed in attempting to realize the American dream.
As baby boomers age and seniors live longer, accessing our memories and capturing and preserving our past can keep us cognitively sharper and more mentally alert and provide important family history for the generations to come.
Somers resident Alan D. Bergman is a baby boomer and the founder of Life Stories Preserved LLC, a memoir and biography writing services firm. It can be found at https://LifeStoriesPreserved.net or e-mail Info@LifeStoriesPreserved.net.