My grandmother came to visit me in Portland a few years before she died. While she was here, I did one of the smartest things I’ve ever done: I sat her down in front of a microphone. She was reluctant to be interviewed, but I said, “Just let me ask you a few questions.” Glory Sabatier was not a shy woman and once she got going, stories just seemed to pour out of her. I coaxed her to tell me familiar tales from our family history and from her own life, but I also heard her say things I’d never heard before about her memories of becoming a mother and even her own spiritual beliefs. Now that she’s gone, I treasure these recordings. I keep them on my iPod and I’m often pleasantly surprised to hear her voice when I put it on “shuffle.”
It turns out that what I asked my grandmother to do that day is recognized in the field of gerontology as an important activity for older adults. It’s called “life review.” The journal Critical Care Nurse defines life review as “a progressive return of the memories of past experience in search of meaning and in striving for emotional resolution.” The journal goes on to say how nurses can use this thereapeutic technique to increase the quality of care for patients who are at the end of their lives. Renowned geronotologist James Birren discovered that reflecting on past experiences and writing about them has a tremendous value for people whether or not they are nearing the end of their lives. He started a guided autobiography program that has continued to grow (and which he continues to be involved with, even as a nonagenarian).
Seniors aren’t the only ones who can benefit from reflecting on their lives, of course. And theirs are not the only ones whose stories have value beyond the personal, as many young memoirists would be eager to tell you! But perhaps there are unique benefits to recording and listening to the reflections of older people — for them, for their families, and for society at large.
Are you a senior citizen? What memories are most important for you to pass on to your children and grandchildren? What have you learned from older people in your life?
- Arnie Gagnet: Retired real estate broker
- Jennifer Sasser: Chair and associate professor of the Department of Human Sciences and coordinator of the gerontology program at Marylhurst University
- Joyce DeMonnin: Public outreach director at AARP Oregon
- Cheryl Svensson: Director of the Birren Autobiographical Studies Program