Regardless of your age or gender, putting life experiences into words can have a multitude of social, mental and emotional benefits.
Like many women with sick or aging parents, Debby Bitticks found herself in the position of caregiver—first, when her mother developed breast cancer in her 50s, and later when her father and father-in-law moved into her house in their twilight years. Her father had started to experience the first side effects of Alzheimer’s disease, and as Debby saw his memory fade, she realized that she didn’t truly feel like she understood her dad despite knowing him for her entire life. With the help of her social worker daughter, Lynn, she crafted a binder filled with interview questions divided into subsections (My Teen Years, Values and Philosophies and Family Tree, for example) to use as a jumping off point to capture her father’s life story. It later became the Cherished Memories: The Story of My Life binder, which sold out on QVC—the American version of The Shopping Channel. More than the success of the book, Debby was astounded by the benefits her dad saw with recording his memories.
Here's why it’s worth helping an aging parent record his/her life story:
1. The parent will show feelings of appreciation.
Elderly family members may think that their life stories don’t have value, or that younger generations have no interest in learning about their parents and grandparents. But when Debby asked her father if she could record his memories, he lit up. “He couldn’t believe that people cared enough or wanted to know,” she says. The same scenario occurred when she asked to interview her father-in-law, who was a quiet, reserved man. By the first page of questions, he’d already started sharing stories that even his son (Debby’s husband) didn’t know.
2. It'll allow for greater understanding and forgiveness.
“Though I love my dad, I never could quite understand certain things,” she says. “When I was 16 years old, I signed a record contract. The record was a hit. But my father made me give up singing and I couldn’t understand why. He broke my heart. During the interview, I told him how I felt and he said, ‘Debby, let me tell you what I felt.’ He came from Germany during the Holocaust and he was very afraid to let me go out into the world of Hollywood. In his mind, he was loving me and protecting me. He had no concept of what he took.” By working through her father’s thought process, Debby was able to better understand and forgive him. She wishes she had talked to him about these events sooner because she carried pointless anger for many years.
3. It can help prevent diseases.
Debby recorded her father’s health history and also took him for genetic testing, leading to the discovery that her family carries a BRCA1 mutation (which greatly increases breast cancer risk). She believes that the information she gathered—and later shared with her extended family around the world—will save countless lives. In fact, recording your family history is one of the simplest and most affordable genomic tools for disease prevention because it helps your doctor pinpoint the screening tests that you require.
Since interviewing her dad in the final years of his life, Debby’s written and shared her own life story and her daughters and their children have started to do the same. Whether you’re 25 or 80, documenting your life can have several benefits—even if no one ever reads your writing.
But, you can benefit from writing down your own memories, too:
1. It can help you heal from a traumatic experience.
A study published in March 2018 JAMA Psychiatry revealed writing about a traumatic memory can be just as effective at treating posttraumatic stress disorder as a longer course of the standard cognitive processing therapy.
2. It's a form of cognitive fitness—your body isn't the only thing that can benefit from exercise.
If you choose to record your memories in cursive, you’ll actually improve your capacity for thinking, language and memory because the process stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the right and left sides of the brain.
Don’t worry about recording everything at once. Simply get started—on a specific chapter of your life (childhood, teen years, university, starting a family) or important moment. All you need is paper and a pen, so there’s no excuse not to give it a whirl.