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Writing Personal Letters for Senior Citizens

Life Story Writing for Seniors

Continued from page 1

The thought of writing a life retrospective can daunt even the most experienced writer, so it is small wonder that it might feel too huge to even start. Goggie's granddaughter engaged her through correspondence, writing letters that asked a specific question. She included a piece of stationery and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and most often received her answer within the week.

You asked me how we spent our Sunday afternoons. We went to community Pie Suppers, and we also had Box Suppers. The boxes were decorated with pretty paper and Mama made a handle on it with a big bow. We put lunches, doughnuts, cake or whatever we had -- goodies in the bag and it was auctioned off to the higest bidder to raise money for something. I'll never forget how Jim Rodgers never failed to get my oldest sister's box. He always paid the most. The auctioneers would see to that.

Life story writing is an excellent way to build community with other seniors. Anne Flaxman, a certified instructor with The Center for Journal Therapy, teaches memoir writing for seniors in Fairfield County, Connecticut, as well as traveling around the country seeding new life story writing groups. Benefits of writing in a structured class include the guidance of a writing prompt, the coaching of a trained facilitator, the enjoyment of hearing the stories of others, and the power of writing and sharing one's own story to a listening audience. Writing groups also decrease isolation, reawaken dormant interests, offer purposeful activity and hone cognitive skills.

"One of the most important thing that happens in a seniors memoir group," says Flaxman, " is the way these people begin to see their lives as jewels that have been polished through time and experience and living. They begin to see the beauty and uniqueness that their life has represented."

Flaxman's course, divided into 8 "chapters" or sessions, follows a chronological pathway through personal history. Seniors begin with "Before My Story Starts" (reflections on family history and ancestry) and end with "Before I Go" ("ethical wills" and other last words). The "ethical will" writing process begins with a list of 10 Things I Want My Loved Ones to Know - ethics, beliefs, mottos, other things seniors want others to know about what they have learned in their lifetimes. "From there," Flaxman said, "the ethical will evolves into a document that acknowledges and passes on the qualities, causes and values that an individual life has stood for. Lady Bird Johnson, for instance, might include in her ethical will the importance of natural beauty in everyday life, and the legacy of a more beautiful America."

Overall, Flaxman says, the seniors who pass through her classes learn to see themselves as part of a historical landscape that spans an entire century - and they are frequently awed at the way their individual lives have intersected and almost touched. "Three people in one class saw the Hindenburg on its last day," she said. "One saw it fly overhead, one saw smoke in the next field, and one's father was a doctor who was called to the scene."

Continued on next page: Oral History for Senior Citizens.

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