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Preserve Life Stories of the Elderly

by Lorie Witkop
The Challenge

Precious life stories are lost every day as the elderly die or are lost to the ravages of stroke, Alzheimer's, and other ailments.

Many of today's elderly are part of "The Greatest Generation." They lived through the depression, fought in World War II, and raised families in an ever-changing society. They witnessed the first moon landing, the Civil Rights movement and the rise and fall of Communism.  They pioneered new trades, experienced rapidly-changing technologies, and lived in evolving neighborhoods.

Think of the loss to society if these life stories were to simply disappear. Fortunately, these memories can be preserved if you are willing to help the elderly write their life story.

Why do so many people neglect to record their life stories? Many people mistakenly believe that they have to write a formal memoir about their whole life, or that they need to have done exciting things, or that they need to be professional writers before their stories can be told.

Other obstacles to writing life stories can be far more practical. Some senior citizens can't see or control a pen like they used to, and computers are foreign to them. If someone else would just act as their hands to write or type, they would love to record their memories. Sometimes, the problem is even simpler, yet no less heartbreaking — they haven't shared their life stories because no one asked them.

It only takes a few hours of your time to create a lasting record of a senior citizen's life story, generating a priceless resource for future generations.

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Connecting With the Elderly

For practice, first look within your own family. By helping your grandma and great-uncle to record their life stories, you're not only preserving their memories, but also creating a family heirloom. With that accomplished, you can then connect with their friends or can find other elderly writing partners at churches, senior centers, nursing homes, independent living facilities, and local groups that work with issues related to aging and the elderly.

Writing a Life Story

When you meet with your writing partner, have a list of questions and conversation-starters ready. If you need some help, there are tips online on how to get your creative juices flowing. Be friendly, open, and patient as you make a lasting record of these life stories. You may want to tape record and/or video tape some of your sessions as well.

Preserving Life Stories

  • The simplest way to share a life story with others is to type it in a computer word processing program and print out copies. Make sure to keep backup copies on a CD or thumb drive.  
  • Scrapbooking is a popular hobby that offers an ideal way to mix life stories, photographs and memorabilia while preserving them on acid-free papers. Compiling a scrapbook while writing the elderly person’s life story can also serve as a catalyst for new ideas and memories.
  • A website or blog can make life stories instantly available to a wide audience. The website Story of My Life, for example, can help you create and share the story you are writing, along with pictures, videos, and more, and help you preserve them forever.
  • If the life story is long enough, you may want to publish a small number of copies in booklet or book form. Check with local printers or online print-on-demand/vanity publishing services for price estimates.

Once you've decided on your method of preservation, give copies of the life stories to interested family members and to your local newspaper, historical society, or library. Schools, professional associations, and trade magazines may also be interested in first-hand accounts of historical events.

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