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Walnut Village Residents Delve Into Past – Join growing trend of older adults documenting their life stories

When John Bradley was a young boy, his grandfather gave him a letter that he still has today.

“It was a letter that explained my grandfather’s values, beliefs as well as advice for me,” said the Walnut Village resident. “I can truly say that letter shaped my life to this day.”

Because of what he calls his grandfather’s “gift” to him, John knows the importance of leaving a legacy to his children and grandchildren. That’s why about 10 years ago, John, with the help of his wife Vivian, began searching into his own past … searching through documents, talking to relatives, researching his family tree.

“I had completed quite a bit of research and I had a lot of information about my family, but I didn’t know how to organize it,” he said.

Irene Patrick, another Walnut Village resident, was also interested in preserving her family’s history, but her road toward doing so took a different path. Irene had a collection of letters, photos and other items mostly from her mother. She also was unsure how to organize the treasures she collected.

Since the mid-1990s memoir writing and memoir-writing classes have become a popular activity and fast-growing phenomenon, particularly among seniors, according to leading gerontologist James Birren, who has authored two books on the subject.

So when John and Irene moved into Walnut Village they found the perfect solution to their organizational dilemma – LifeBio. Founded in 2000, LifeBio is one of the nation’s many legacy companies, helping to preserve relationships and memories that last for generations. Since opening in 2000, LifeBio has helped about 20,000 people tell their life stories by providing various autobiographical tools and services. In 2009, California Lutheran Homes and Community Services partnered with LifeBio through its volunteer Auxiliary to bring LifeBio’s unique products and services to Walnut Village.

“I like LifeBio because it takes a different approach than that of other memoir programs I am aware of – a fun approach,” said Bonnie Stover, director of the California Lutheran Homes and Community Services Auxiliary. “I love the variety of questions – some you would not necessarily associate with a person’s biography like ‘what is your favorite memory of ice-cream’ that lead to so many insights about the individual as the story unfolds.”

LifeBio offers participants choices on how to present their work. Video, audio recordings, photo journals, diary entries, short stories and traditional memoirs are just a few of the formats chosen by participants.

Led by participants themselves, each class in an eight-week span covers the people, history, childhood memories, love, marriage, children, grandchildren, pets, friendships, beliefs, values and much more. Besides the experience of documenting one’s life story, participants find themselves growing closer and forging new friendships as they realize how unique each life story is.

“I enjoyed sharing my stories with my neighbors,” John said. “Listening to others gave me an insight into their lives. I was hoping that would happen.”

“I found the story telling in class to be my favorite thing,” Irene said. “What a great chance to get to know my neighbors.”

Classes usually start with participants answering one of many questions posed in the LifeBio Memory Journal designed to spur memories and to get participants
to begin to exchange stories with each other. ‘Who was the person who most influenced your life? What would your family do during the summer? What was your favorite place to live and what made that place special?’

“The questions in the book are outstanding,” said Irene, who chose to record her memories rather than write them. Widowed after only seven years of marriage, Irene wanted to leave behind to her children memories of their father. She did so by interviewing her mother-in-law with the help of a hand-held digital audio recorder.

“She was wonderful,” Irene said. “Where else can I get 95 years of history? She told me stories about my husband’s family going all the way back to Sicily in the 1800s. I used the LifeBio Memory Journal questions to help me.”

John Bradley also used LifeBio to organize his life story. “I decided to arrange my journal by events,” John said. “Right now I’m writing about my career as an engineer during the space program. I think that time is an important part of history that I want my children and grandchildren to know about and my involvement with it.”

The methods generally take similar form. Organizers gather basic life facts, such as chronologies, names of people and places, and impressions and opinions related to various events. For example, survivors of World War II may be asked, ‘How did it feel to be away from home and fighting a war?’

Participants are also asked to share their wisdom from lessons they’ve learned or experiences they’ve endured.

During a recent LifeBio class exercise at Walnut Village, residents were asked to present a brief life history using visual aids. Many brought photos, collages and items that represented their rich experiences.

“This is a picture of my father,” said resident Etola Blucker. “He was the most important person to me in my life.” Etola went on to explain that by age 10 she had fallen in love with the choir, a passion she has today.

“One of my strongest memories I have is when I was four and our farm in Ohio was being auctioned off during the Depression,” said LifeBio participant Larry Liles, who also served as a facilitator.

“I also remember having to ride my bike four miles each day to football practice, ride four miles back home and then having to do my chores.”

In 2009, Walnut Village was the first retirement community in California to work with LifeBio. LifeBio is currently working with 44 retirement communities and hospitals in 17 states, with 20 retirement communities alone joining LifeBio during the past 12 months.

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