The Greatest Chapter

Redefining the later years

Older Adults: 8 Tips for Writing Your Life Story

Tips for starting a life review project, for yourself or for your loved one.

Story telling is a lost art in many families. Historically, elders passed on culture, skills, and knowledge to younger generations via storytelling – a position that came with much esteem and respect. Since the arrival of the printing press and easy dissemination of written word, however, older adults were no longer called upon for oral tradition and younger generations looked elsewhere to seek knowledge and wisdom. Nowadays, people in the United States are able to gather information about virtually anything from education, media, books, television, and the Internet. Rarely do we consider the wisdom of our elders as a source of valuable growth and learning. At the same time, our beloved elders still feel a deep desire to pass on experience and culture to younger generations, and we have much to learn from their stories.

Writing down one’s life story can be very powerful, and the process of writing is equally as important as the final product. In writing, older adults can find voice, a sense of importance, and a renewed connection with self. They can reframe, gain perspective, find forgiveness, and connect with a deep sense of gratitude. Writing one’s story can serve to wrap up loose ends, to pass on important lessons, and to capture a unique time in history.

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So, I’d like to invite you to start this process for yourself, or to extend this invitation to your loved one, your client, your neighbor, your parent, etc. Here are some tips for embarking on this beautiful journey:

1. Getting starting

There are many ways to record your story: pen and paper, computer or typewriter, audio recorder, video recorder, scrapbook, or even artwork. You can choose to record your story in solitude, or you might ask a loved one or a grandchild to write down your story as you speak. Getting started often involves diving into memories via talking with friends and family, reading old letters, looking at old photographs, and even cooking recipes that remind you of earlier years. As you start accessing old memories more clearly, you can begin the writing process (which often takes weeks or months).

2. Write each decade as a chapter

Many people find it helpful to recall their story in decades (the first chapter covers ages 0-10, the second chapter 10-20, etc.). Other people prefer to label each chapter by important location (“46 Maple Street; Chicago), by important events (school years; married years), or by personally meaningful metaphors. Whichever way you choose, structuring your story using chapters will create a nice framework so that you can take one chapter at a time, and continue to add important memories as they arise.

3. Personal and Family History

In each chapter, take time and space to tell stories that are important to you, and write down memories from that time period with as much detail as you’d like. You may also think about the following questions: What were you doing at the time (i.e. school/work/child rearing)? What did you like/dislike about it? Who were your close relationships? What were those relationships like? What did your parents do for work? What types of things did you enjoy? Answers to these questions really capture who you are as an individual, and reflecting back on these personal and family stories can be very powerful.

4. The Spirit of the Time and Significant Life Events

In addition to detailing personal and family history, many people enjoy reflecting on the “spirit of the time” as well. Topics may include: the economy, politics, historical events, and culture. You may ask yourself questions such as: what did an average family look like at that time? What did people believe in? How did your family view money? How much did a loaf of bread cost? In doing this, you are able to pass on a piece of history to your audience, and reconnect with values from your past.

5. Include life lessons and perspective gained throughout

Don’t forget to reflect on “lessons learned” and on how your perspective has changed throughout the years. These themes can run through each chapter and certainly don’t need to be eloquent or profound, they just need to reflect your unique journey. Some questions to consider: How did this experience shape me? What was my spirituality like at the time? How did I see the world during this chapter? What 3 values were most important at that point?

6. Reflection and giving thanks

Research from Positive Psychology supports the benefits of feeling truly thankful for something – it benefits your health, your relationships, your attitude, and more! Whenever it feels appropriate for you, sit back and reflect on your experiences (good and bad). In this reflection, many feelings might come up. Importantly for gratitude, you might feel amazement at how your life has unfolded and a sense of awe at your experiences. You may even feel thankful for people who have crossed your path, and for where you have landed. Whatever feelings come up, take time to sit with them, let them wash over you, and then keep moving forward when you feel ready.

7. Make it social

Whether your write your story alone or with a partner, make plans to discuss and share with others. If you live in a senior community, invite other members to write and discuss their own stories (perhaps read a chapter at every meal or social gathering). Bring your story to your book club or trade stories with close loved ones or neighbors. Many older adults will copy and distribute their stories to family members. Inviting others to engage in your story enriches the experience for all involved!  

8. Imagine the next chapter

Your life story does not end when you finish your life review. Rather, the next chapter begins! When you feel that you have completed your written story, take time to imagine what you will write in the next chapter. Take stock of the strengths you bring. As with each chapter, your co-stars, abilities, and perspective may change, and that might be disheartening. But your story would be lackluster if you never had to adapt, and amazingly enough you’ve already adapted to new circumstances throughout each chapter of your life. Time and time again I see your resilience, knowledge, wisdom, strength, and perspective. In this greatest chapter, how will you share it?

Kristin Hultgren is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Denver, with a specialty in geropsychology and aging studies.

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