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Eliciting a life story – a responsibility to aging seniors
Veterans Day is a reminder of a well-recorded past. Watch aging veterans assemble in parks, read about Honor Flight – where veterans aged 83 to 100 are flown from across the country to Washington to visit the World War II and other memorials. Veterans Day is a moment in which the history and backgrounds of individuals are celebrated, speeches are given, flags are waved. Sit next to veterans at one of these events and they will proudly tell you about the remembered past. I wonder how many of them, though, have actually left a recorded (or video) version of that remembered past for family members?
Ask any seniors to tell their story while they can. So when I see an elderly lady sitting in the garden outside an assisted living community, I wonder if she has participated in the video life story program there, or if they have one. Has anyone at a nearby senior center facilitated a ‘guided’ autobiography session – like this Stories Unfolding process, for example, or TellingStories – an oral history archives project of the Urban School in San Francisco --which has already recorded the stories of Holocaust and Japanese camp survivors. Has a family member tried LifeBio or Life History Services, sites wit the tools and services to record your own life story or someone else’s.
But what if a person has dementia and no story has been recorded? Here’s where a family interview with information recorded or written is so important – and I doubt that most admissions/marketing/intake processes for assisted living or nursing homes consider the significance of documenting -- maybe even with family-provided photos -- and then sharing it with staff so that they have a better understanding of the people in their activities programs and around the lunch table. Jack York (IN2L.com) tells the story of a new user of his system who turned out to be the first woman in Vermont to fly an airplane – but the only way her nursing home staff discovered it was when she encountered the IN2L software’s flight simulator.
It’s not okay to not know the history. A missing (auto) biography is unacceptable in a day and age where the tools to record are broadly available – someone brought the woman pilot to her first senior residence. I bet that the person signing admission forms knew she had been a pilot. All they had to do (if asked) was to write down a page of her history so that it could be viewed in her room or on the door or even accessible in an online tool in an activities center, reached by touching her photo. With a life story documented, the staff could see it every time they entered her room, home care workers could read the life history of those who suffered a stroke and could no longer speak. It could accompany belongings into a hospital, along with the change of clothing. If she used to sing in a choir, what was her favorite piece of music? Would it please her to hear it played, see the pictures? And just as we honor the veterans among us on Veterans Day, we could honor the former pilots, teachers, singers, and nurses among those aging around us -- every day.