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Life Review: The Benefits of Recording Your "Autobiography"

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IMAGE Thoughtful retrospection—either oral or written—can help you focus on life's meaning and prepare for upcoming transitions, while leaving a history for future generations.

Upon reaching their middle and older years, men and women often look back on rewarding and warm moments, touching times, and challenging experiences. By making a conscious decision to contemplate the past, adults can reshape their perceptions and expectations and leave a legacy for other family members.

Robert N. Butler, MD, president of the New York-based International Longevity Center, pioneered the concept of and coined the term "life review." During the 1950s, aging experts did not perceive the value of reminiscing. But as a young researcher at the National Institutes of Health, Butler worked with healthy older adults.

"Hearing them talk about their lives, I was so struck by the importance of it—the energy, the value, the effort to come to terms with their lives, to think about reconciling with others," Butler explains. "It was just a knock-out."

Butler wrote about the process, which gained popularity and has now spread from the United States to other countries, as well. Life review may help improve a person's self-esteem, well-being, and satisfaction with life. It may also help improve cognitive ability.

"The autobiography did not develop until the 17th century," Butler says. "We're talking about a phenomenon of self-examination that is relatively recent. It may be that people are feeling they can learn a lot from understanding the lives of others."

When to Start

Sometimes a turning point, a career choice, or an impending death sparks the reflective process. Midlife often triggers a desire to take stock of one's life. Other times, family members, hoping to learn more about their roots, may spur the autobiography.

It was a grandchild's request for information that prompted retired physician, Joe, of Orlando, Florida, to pick up a pen. "It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but that gave me a little incentive," he says.

For others, a simple question asked by another can open up a world of memories and conversation. This may inspire the storyteller to think about how he can share memories with others.

Alone or in a Group

Reminiscing has no rules. If you want to review your life, you can share with another person or in a group. It is the process of reminiscing that is the most important part. It helps people with coping, identity, and self-worth. Talking with a group may be more fun and you will hear a wider variety of stories.

Painful Memories

Most people can conduct a life review without problems. But for some people, the process can bring painful memories to the surface. If you have experienced a traumatic event, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may make it difficult for you to face the past alone. The good news is that you do not have to. There are different types of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, which can help you learn new coping strategies. Even if you do not have PTSD, working with a therapist can help you understand your history and grow.

It is important to maintain trust and honesty. Group participants should not press an individual to talk about something painful. Privacy and confidentiality help foster trust among group participants. Do not repeat what you hear to others unless the individual has told you it is okay.

What to Write About

Take an honest look at your accomplishments and unresolved issues. The more balance the better, according to Butler. Some people record oral histories on audio or videotape. Most decide to write down their memories, which helps them to focus and leaves a permanent record. Some write unsent letters to old friends or family members. Using a loose-leaf binder or a computer allows you to jump around as thoughts present themselves, rather than always working in chronological order.

Experts offer the following tips:

  • Break the project into segments.
  • Let photos or keepsakes trigger memories.
  • Include as many details as possible, such as descriptions of smells, sights and sounds.
  • Add names and dates.
  • Do not worry about spelling and grammar.
  • Let memories flow naturally.

Whether you follow these steps on your own or join a life review group, let your thoughts guide you through an insightful journey as you record a lasting legacy.

  • American Association of Retired Persons

    http://www.aarp.org

  • Mental Health America

    http://www.mhadc.com

  • Canadian Mental Health Association

    http://www.cmha.ca

  • Seniors Canada

    http://www.seniors.gc.ca

  • Alzheimer disease. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated January 18, 2013. Accessed January 18, 2013.

  • Cotelli M, Manenti R, Zanetti O. Reminiscence therapy in dementia: a review. Maturitas. 2012;72(3):203-205.

  • Reminiscence: an important task for older adults. Texas Agricultural Extension Service website. Available at: http://fcs.tamu.edu/families/aging/reminiscence/reminiscence%5Fimportant%5Ftask.php. Updated July 26, 2010. Accessed January 18, 2013.

  • Writing an autobiography. Your Life is Your Story website. Available at: http://www.your-life-your-story.com/autobiography.html. Accessed January 22, 2013.