How to share a life story: The wonderful benefits of a memoir

Mental Health

How to share a life story: The wonderful benefits of a memoir

Here, we look at how and why sharing your life story at the end of your life could deliver therapeutic and psychological benefits. 

Health Agenda magazine
September 2019

Knowing you’re about to reach the end of your life can be a confronting realisation. The fear of losing all the personal stories and wisdom is not only an issue for you, but for your loved ones too.

Writing down, or recording your life story on video, is one way to ensure your legacy can be passed on to the next generation and to reengage with your defining moments. Increasingly, people’s life stories are being recorded and shared around Australia.

Gillian Ednie is a life story professional. She started recording people’s memoirs after the healthcare organisation she was working for funded an evaluation of a biography program at Eastern Palliative Care in Victoria.

“It’s such a win-win situation,” says Ednie, explaining that it gives people nearing the end of their lives the opportunity to share their story with someone who really listens. “Their self-esteem increases,” she says, “as does their interest in sharing their stories with family and friends, who often learn things they hadn’t known before. It gives people a lift, a chance to reconnect and to appreciate their lives.”

But why wait until people are at palliative care stage? “People should be doing this a lot earlier,” says Ednie.

One of her recent clients is ex-broadcast journalist 82-year-old Cliff Peel. He wrote the first chapter of his own biography but couldn’t continue after he developed the eye disease, macular degeneration, so he sought Ednie’s help.

“I would tell people stories from my life, and they would say, ‘Why don’t you write a book about it?’” says Peel. “So that’s what prompted me to start it…throughout the process, I would look back and go, ‘Hmm, I really have had fun’ – so that’s the subtitle of my book [My Life in Broadcasting: It’s Been a Lot of Fun]. Ultimately, I learned more about myself through the process.”

The book was launched on Peel’s 80th birthday in 2016. “We had a bit of a party. I thought, I’m not going to be around for my wake, so I’ll have a good 80th birthday,” he says.

Ednie has worked with many older people on their memoirs – and some younger ones too.

Ednie recalls a 52-year-old client who had suffered with depression and dyslexia. “He wanted to review the past and reset the future,” says Ednie. “He’d transcended these big issues in his life and wanted to share his life story so that others might benefit.

“People find a way to reframe things that have happened in their life that they may have put away in the cupboard and not wanted to look at. So, it can have therapeutic benefits too, because people are able to process the things they couldn’t at the time.

“And they have a greater regard for themselves – to look back on their lives and say, ‘Well, actually that was remarkable! I wonder how I ever did that?’ They can be very impressed with their achievements, how they handled difficult times and the wisdom they have gained,” says Ednie.

Why you should share your life story

Alison Crossley is a registered psychologist and worked in the mental health sector for a decade before moving into life-story work in 2016. Crossley and husband Paul English record people’s life stories on video.

“Paul interviewed his mother in 2015 for her 90th,” says Crossley. “He put a short film together and showed it at her birthday. She died five months later, so we were able to play some snippets from the movie at her funeral.”

After that, the couple began researching the benefits of life-story work and set up their own company.

“We found that there are a lot of psychological benefits in telling your story,” says Crossley. “It can help validate your life and acknowledge your achievements. It can help with identity, particularly if a person is in palliative care or if they have a chronic illness where their identity is really challenged. It can be cathartic and healing.”

Having a purpose in life has added benefits

Neuropsychologist Patricia Boyle, from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, conducted a study to test the theory that having “greater purpose in life” has a positive effect on mental health and brain function as we age. Over a period of seven years, Associate Professor Boyle and her colleague tracked more than 900 people with an average age of 80. The researchers found that people who had a high level of purpose were more than twice as likely to remain free from Alzheimer’s and had 30% less cognitive, or brain function, decline. They also found that having a purpose created greater satisfaction and happiness and better physical functioning and sleep.

“They found that people want to make a contribution,” says Crossley. “They want to feel part of something that extends beyond themselves. The researchers particularly mentioned mentoring to encourage a sense of purpose.

“As we age, we can lose a lot of flexibility in our mental health, and the idea of reminiscing through life storytelling can help you get a stronger idea about who you are as a person and your value in the community, and the world.”

What are the benefits of studying family history?

It’s also good for young people to know where they come from. In a study, a team of psychologists from Emory University in Atlanta in the US measured children’s resilience and found that those who knew the most about their family history were best able to handle stress and had a stronger sense of control over their lives and higher self-esteem. It’s believed these children understood they belonged to something bigger than themselves.

“This kind of reminiscing can start a dialogue and help to form a bond between the teller and the listener,” says Crossley. “Storytelling engages and connects people – that’s why stories are important. There’s that [saying] ‘facts tell, stories sell’. You can tell people facts until the cows come home, but if you tell them a story, it lives in the heart forever.”

Words by Heather Millar

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