3.3 Article on Students Helping Seniors Share Their Life Stories

There is a famous folk song from 1974 by Harry Chapin. The song, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” derives its title from a children’s rhyme, but it is not a playful, happy song; it is a song of a parent’s regret that when his child was young, the parent was too busy to spend time with him, and when the child became an adult, the tables were turned, and the adult child claimed to be too busy to spend time with his now retired father (Grayeb, 2004).

Cat’s in the Cradle captures the sad reality that too often people reject social connections, yet these connections with family and others play a vital role in both mental and physical health (Grover et al., 2018). Ornish and Ornish (2020) did a wide-ranging review of the research on critical health factors and highlighted four factors which they summarized in the slogan: “Eat Well (i.e., a plant-based diet), Move More (i.e., exercise regularly), Stress Less, and Love More (i.e., establish and maintain social connections).

The purpose of this article is to propose that secondary school and tertiary level students boost the social connections of seniors by helping seniors share their Life Stories. Life Stories are short collections via video, audio, and/or text of self-selected memories that the seniors wish to hold onto and share with others. This is a mutually advantageous activity for students and seniors. The article begins by explaining Life Stories, followed by suggesting possible benefits of co-creating them, and then offering advice on creating, storing, and sharing the Life Stories.

What Are Life Stories

Life Stories are self-selected collections of memories that individuals or groups create about their lives. Usually, Life Stories are about just one person, but they can also be about a pair or a larger group of people. For example, maybe a student’s maternal grandparents would like to create Life Stories together, or maybe two neighbors who have lived next to each other for 60 years would like to do Life Stories, or maybe the people who worked together for many years in a charity would like to do Life Stories of that charity.

Please notice that this article does not talk only about “writing” Life Stories. In reality, people can create Life Stories in many ways. Of course, writing is one way, but Life Stories can also contain photos, drawings, mindmaps, audio recording, videos (Mercado-Salas et al., 2020), and who knows what else is and will be possible. For example, one friend of ours includes collages in his Life Stories. Plus, Life Stories can combine multiple modes of communication, such as photos and text, especially with the help of tech-savvy students. This whole process of creating Life Stories can further be supported by the current trend of interactive social media usage, such as Facebook and TikTok, which are multimodal in nature and often include video clips.

What and How Much To Include in Life Stories

The term “self-selected” in the above definition of a memoir is important. Life Stories need not be long, and they need not contain all or even most of the main events in someone’s life. All, or at least most, of us have done things that we regret; we have taken actions that we are not proud of. All of us have had sad times; sadness is an unavoidable part of life. Fortunately, in our Life Stories, we can choose whether to include our mistakes and our sad times, or we can focus solely on positive episodes.

Length is another area in which the creators of Life Stories have choice. Life Stories can start with just one or two stories and can grow from there or not. It becomes a case of every little bit helps. Every story is a gift to the creators and those who subsequently enjoy the story. ICT (Internet Communication Technology) makes doing Life Stories very flexible. New stories can be added any time, and old stories can be modified, for example, if a new memory appears related to a previously created story.

Who Can Do Life Stores

Anyone can create Life Stories. Previously, memoirs and autobiographies were thought to be only for famous people, but actually, everyone has interesting stories to tell. Gone are the days when only the empress, emperor, and the rest of the royal family were considered to be interesting. Now, a more democratic spirit exists, one in which everyone is essential in their own way. For example, during the COVID-19 zoonotic pandemic, terms such as “essential workers” and “frontline workers” gave justifiable prominence to many people whose work previously may not have been sufficiently valued.

Not only are Life Stories not restricted to famous people, they are also not restricted to older people. Yes, there are particular reasons for people later in life to do Life Stories. For instance, Erikson and Erikson (1998) developed an eight-stage model of the human life cycle, and the last two stages, seven and eight, both seem relevant to sharing Life Stories. In stage seven, a key concern is guiding younger generations, and Life Stories provide a useful tool for sharing experiences and insights. In stage eight, the last stage in the Eriksons’ model of the human life cycle, a key concern is whether people feel they have lived a good life. Life Stories provide a tool that enables people to reflect on their lives and for students and others to influence seniors to view their lives positively, with the Life Stories as additional life accomplishments.

The above notwithstanding, Life Stories creation can also be appropriate for other age groups. For example, according to Erikson and Erikson, people in their teens and twenties often grapple with matters of identity, and Life Stories provide a space for reflection on identity issues, for example, whether students are meant for office work or for working with their hands (Kist, 2017; Williamson, 2018). A similar tool, dialog journals, have long been used by teachers of language and other subjects to encourage reflection and goal setting (Peyton, 1993). Perhaps, helping create Life Stories for seniors can inspire students to create comparable works for themselves. Indeed, teachers might assign students to do their own mini-Life Stories before or after helping the seniors.

The Language of Life Stories

Another important consideration when students assist seniors in mini-memoir creation is the language(s) used. Any language works for Life Stories, and a combination of languages can also be useful, such as in bilingual or multilingual Life Stories. If students from English classes are helping non-English-speaking seniors with their Life Stories, the Life Stories can be created in the seniors’ first language, and then, for English class, students can do English summaries of one of the Life Stories they helped create, or the class can have a discussion in English of what they learned via the experience. Furthermore, as mentioned above, students can also do their own mini-Life Stories.

Benefits of Doing Life Stories

Seniors can derive many benefits when students help them co-construct Life Stories. Maybe the primary benefits of doing Life Stories are not the benefits for others but the benefits for those who make the effort to share their Life Stories. For example, Life Stories provide a way of preserving memories. As dementia increases, people need ways to hang on to their memories, especially as the self-selected memories saved in Life Stories connect closely to people’s identities. For instance, if taking care of children represented an important part of some people’s identities, stories about that in their Life Stories can help people maintain their ego integrity, that is, their sense of self (Choi & Yeom, 2019).

Another benefit of doing Life Stories arises from Life Stories serving as a tool that helps people reflect on their lives. So much happens to everyone every day. Multiply that times all the days in seniors’ lives, and the amount of memories can be overwhelming. Life Stories encourage a big picture view, bringing some sense of order and overview to the myriad events of life over so many years. What has been accomplished? What were highlights? What strengths were displayed? What is there to be thankful for? What brought happiness? Who were important people? What did they do that made them important? What lessons are there to pass on to others, including the students who are helping with Life Story creation? What should be done in the future?

Concepcion (2018) described the cathartic value of people recording their pasts. While her examples involved victims of political persecution, everyone has frustrations, and Life Stories provide a kind of release valve for disappointments, fears, and resentments. Storytelling as a healing process has a long history (Herman, 1997; Raab, 2020). At the same time, sharing about happier moments can also boost mental health, especially when an audience exists – now or in the potential future. This sharing with an audience speaks to the social connections that Ornish and Ornish (2020) highlighted as crucial to mental and physical health.

Duflos et al. (2020) reviewed 18 articles from the previous decade that included studies of the impact of ties between seniors and their adolescent grandchildren. Key factors included emotional closeness, long-term commitment to the relationship, and reciprocal influence, that is, both generations influence each other. Examples of reciprocal influence might be when the grandparents exhibit acceptance of other races and religions, and the grandchildren follow their example. Also, when the grandchildren are frequent users of ICT, this may lead the grandparents to integrate ICT into their own lives. By the time the grandchildren reach adolescence, it might be believed that they no longer need their grandparents and that any help goes only one way from the grandchildren to the grandparents. However, the studies reviewed by Duflos et al. (2020) suggest that the benefits are mutual.

Are dementia and other forms of cognitive decline unavoidable in seniors? Fratiglioni et al. (2020) suggested otherwise, positing that activities involving cognitive and social engagement, along with other behaviors, such as moderate exercise and consuming healthy diets, can safeguard cognitive health. Co-constructing Life Stories provides mental stimulation, as seniors decide on the contents of their Life Stories and consider how to make those contents understandable and enticing for their audiences. Additionally, the students helping on the Life Stories can gently nudge seniors to be physically active and to move toward whole food, plant-based diets (NutritionFacts, 2021). Even better, the students may decide to practice what they are preaching to the seniors and move toward doing more exercise and eating healthier themselves.

An additional benefit of collaboration across generations to co-construct Life Stories derives from what students can learn from seniors about simpler times, times when humans walked more lightly on the Earth, with smaller carbon footprints. Those simpler times may or may not have been happier, better times, but perhaps students can find elements of value from back then, elements they can combine with today’s technology to create more sustainable lifestyles. Indeed, looking inward and assessing our lives and those of others presents a lifestyle choice in which people co-create their own edutainment rather than relying on others (Chemi et al., 2017).

Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology presents a relatively new perspective on psychology. Rather than focusing on the negatives in people’s lives and trying to bring people from problematic up to normal, Positive Psychology looks at the positives in people’s lives, such as their strengths and what is going well, and helps people improve from normal to good and very good (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). In the past 20 years, a great deal of research has been done to validate and apply insights from Positive Psychology.

One acronym for understanding key ideas from Positive Psychology is PERMA (Seligman, 2012). PERMA stands for:

  •  Positive emotions: feeling happiness. This feeling is promoted by the other four elements of PERMA.
  •  Engagement: involvement in activities that hold one’s attention; the opposite would be boredom.
  • Relationships: involvement in mutually beneficial interaction with others.
  • Meaningfulness: feeling that what is done serves beneficial purposes.
  •  Achievement: making progress toward meaningful goals.

Students supporting seniors to co-construct Life Stories could be seen as promoting PERMA for both seniors and students. In the case of seniors, working on the Life Stories constitutes a form of engagement that requires a great deal of attention to select which memories to include, to plan how to make those memories understandable and interesting for their audiences, and to weigh various options for storing and sharing the Life Stories. The R in PERMA, relationships, manifests itself because much of the content of the Life Stories is likely to deal with the people in the life of the Life Stories creators. Looking for meaning constitutes an important reason for doing Life Stories, and Life Stories creation encourages seniors to take comfort in the view that their lives have indeed been meaningful. Compiling and sharing Life Stories can be an ongoing task, and each step along the way represents an achievement about which both seniors and their student assistants can be proud.

The presence of the ERMA in Life Stories construction facilitates the first letter in PERMA, P, positive emotions. As to the students, perhaps they are best seen not as assistants but as understudies, because by assisting and observing the seniors’ process of memoir construction, the students are preparing not only to do their own Life Stories later in life, but more profoundly, the students are being encouraged to contemplate how to live the rest of their lives.

Service Learning

Service Learning (Folgueiras et al., 2020) involves students in feeding two birds with one bowl. That is, on one hand, students learn and practice cooperative values by doing service for others, and, on the other hand, students learn skills, information, and ideas in line with the curriculum of their educational instruction institution. Students helping seniors with their Life Stories certainly fits as Service Learning.  This fit exists because students serve seniors’ need for social connection and cognitive stimulation at the same time that students learn about the lives of people in earlier generations. Students also learn about the reality of being seniors in the present day, as well as learning about creating, distributing, and storing documents in multimodal formats. Indeed, as this article is written in 2021, there seems to be momentum toward a more caring world, not just via more activities such as Service Learning, but also businesses are considering what they can do to help achieve the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 (Leal-Filho, 2020). These goals include healthy aging.

How To Do Life Stories

Preparation for Doing Life Stories

Doing Life Stories may seem to be a huge task, but people can start small. Any activity that keeps alive memories and thoughts about the past provides useful preparation for Life Stories. Preparation for Life Stories can focus on strengthening Life Stories creation muscles, and it can also provide materials to include in Life Stories. There may already be a great deal of material available, such as photo albums, material that only needs organizing and editing. Students who co-construct Life Stories with seniors can look through this material for what to include in the Life Stories. Here are some more ideas.

a. Social media (Cardell et al., 2017), e.g., some people have been posting on Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp groups, etc. for years. The words, images, and video clips from these platforms can be transferred to Life Stories.

b. Diaries, e.g., childhood diaries, school yearbooks, and school assignments can provide fascinating insights into people’s thoughts and perspectives when they were much younger.

c. Selfies and other photos and videos.

d. Drawings of important places and people from seniors’ pasts.

e. Friends, family members, neighbors, and former colleagues and classmates can be sources of stories, photos, etc.

f. Newspaper articles (hard copy and online), many of which may be searchable.

g. Life Stories of family members and friends can supply ideas and materials. In this way, the more people students help to co-construct Life Stories, the more resources there will be the next time someone whom they know wants to do their Life Stories. Thus, a kind of snowball effect occurs.

h. Groups of people all doing Life Stories can support each other by giving feedback, providing friendly audiences, and supplying deadlines, e.g., if people are scheduled to present their latest draft at the next meeting of their Life Stories group, the seniors and their student assistants have additional motivation to have something ready in time for the meeting.

Revising Can Be Enjoyable

People do not need to be professional writers, photographers, layout designers, or videographers to do excellent Life Stories or to help seniors to co-construct excellent Life Stories. However, perseverance and attention to detail are useful, as revising will very likely be necessary and even enjoyable. Revision can be enjoyable in the same way that straightening up a room can be enjoyable, because they both provide a feeling of accomplishment and orderliness.

Seniors and their student assistants should see creation of Life Stories as a process with multiple phases. The phases in this process are to (1) create ideas, (2) develop those ideas, (3) check what has been done to see if the ideas and organization are acceptable, and then (4) check for details, such as whether the layout looks good (Pennington & So, 1994). This creation process is recursive, as the phases, especially Phases 1 and 2, can reoccur. For example, during Phases 3 and 4, people may decide to add to or modify some of the contents of the Life Stories.

This process of construction and revision of Life Stories can be similar to the process of decorating a new or refurbished home. People start with ideas for what they want in the various parts of their home, such as the colors and the furniture. In Phase 1, they find ideas by thinking about other homes they have lived in, visited, or seen. Then, they make a plan, and ask others for feedback on that plan. When the homeowners think they are happy with their plan, in Phase 2, they paint the walls and ceiling, prepare the flooring, and buy, find, or make everything they want in their home.

After most of the home decorating work is done, in Phase 3, the people look over what they have created and consider whether they want to make changes, such as moving some of the furniture from one room to another or changing which bedroom will be for the two eldest children and which will be for the two youngest. In Phase 4, very small changes will be considered, such as they may notice one wall where the painting needs some minor retouching. However, because this is a recursive process, at any phase in the process, the homeowners can decide to make major changes to their home decoration plans. Furthermore, just as people can, at any time, add to their Life Stories, at any time, people can alter what they have done with their home. For instance, they might decide to change the color of a room, go to a thrift shop to find different plates and bowls, or add plants in order to grow some of their own herbs and spices and to add a touch of nature to their home. This perspective applies to the process of co-constructing and revising Life Stories.

Control and Confidentiality

Compared to seniors, students will often have superior memoir creation skills, such as writing, layout, ICT, and visuals. Nonetheless, the Life Stories belong to the seniors. The Life Stories are based on their ideas and memories. In a manner similar to teachers needing to allow students to feel and exercise ownership of their own writing (Wall & Peltier, 1996), students assisting seniors need to assure that ownership of the Life Stories remains where it belongs: with the seniors.

Confidentiality presents another area in which students need to be cautious. Seniors are entering a difficult period of their lives, a time when their bodies and even their minds may not be functioning as well as they did previously. This can lead to embarrassing incidents, such as forgetting the names of family members or even the addresses where the seniors themselves live. Students not accustomed to witnessing the trials of older age may not know how to react. Certainly, one rule to follow is to maintain seniors’ confidentiality. The seniors decide what they want to share in their Life Stories; students should share no more than that.

Considering Audiences

As with all writing and other creation processes, doing Life Stories requires audience awareness in order to create in a reader/viewer/listener-based manner (Jones, 1995; Thickstun, n.d.). Language plays a role here, as unusual word choice adds color to Life Stories. At the same time, memoir creators need to consider whether or not to explain terms. As students are from different generations than seniors, students may be able to offer a useful check on what may not be clear to others. Here are more tips for doing audience-based Life Stories.

a. Audience(s) for Life Stories should be discussed and tentatively decided on early in the project. Then, audiences’ background knowledge and interests must be considered. For example, if younger generations are part of the audience, in doing the Life Stories, the creators need to bear in mind that there may be much from the Life Stories creators’ childhoods that youth of today and tomorrow will not know about. Thus, seniors’ childhood memories, which are precious for including in Life Stories, will need sufficient explanations.

b. Introductions and subheads help the audience understand how the pieces of the Life Stories are organized.

c. The look of the Life Stories should be varied by, for example, using colors, visuals, and different fonts.

d. Life Stories should grab people’s attention with startling facts, intriguing questions, stories, quotes, and comparisons. In particular, stories play a key role in attracting audiences’ attention (Yang & Hobbs, 2020).

e. When telling stories, excellent advice is to focus mostly on showing, rather than telling (Colorado State University, 2021). For example, rather than telling that the weather was bad, describe the wind knocking over trees and the rain soaking people’s shoes and clothing. Of course, photos, videos, and other visuals are also great for showing.

f. Try to check for accuracy. Of course, some information will be impossible or very difficult to check, but the internet can be a great resource. Plus, friends and family can be very helpful, not just for checking facts, but also for adding stories.

Storing and Sharing Life Stories

Doing Life Stories is only a first step. Finding receptive audiences also needs to be planned. Seeing that an audience exists and receiving appreciative feedback boosts seniors’ morale. Life Stories are precious, even if few other people appreciate them at first. Well-preserved Life Stories have unlimited future audiences who will benefit from the richness of the content.

Because of the value of Life Stories, care needs to be taken in storing them, and patience, perseverance, and some marketing skill need to be used in sharing them as widely as possible. When it comes to storing Life Stories, the best approach may be to use multiple approaches, involving hard copies and soft copies. Printed Life Stories can be given to people as presents, and no electronic devices are required to enjoy the Life Stories. On the other hand, soft copies offer the advantage of ease of distribution almost anywhere in the world, many copies can be distributed at no cost, and unlike hard copies, soft copies do not decay with age. However, soft copies can go missing in the ether, or they can seemingly disappear amidst the millions of online documents created every minute.

Sharing Life Stories can be difficult. What if there is little interest? Here are some suggestions.

a. People who are in the Life Stories will probably be interested in seeing the parts where they are mentioned.

b. Many people do not like to read much, but they may be more interested in looking at photos and videos, or listening to recordings. Using people’s photo collections (from photo albums or phones), making videos, and doing voice recordings offer ways to rather quickly complete Life Stories, in contrast to writing which, for some people, can be a tedious and tiring process.

c. Groups of people who create Life Stories and help others create Life Stories can be an excellent audience. Just as groups of birdwatchers or groups who help AIDS patients will be interested in what each other is doing and can learn from each other, so too will those doing Life Stories be keen to learn about what each other have done.

d. Family and other gatherings may provide opportunities to read aloud a section from the Life Stories. Reading aloud is similar to doing an advertisement for all of one person’s Life Stories; thus, it is important to choose a portion that will be of particular interest to those at the gathering.

e. Websites, blogs, and social media afford platforms for sharing to wide audiences.

f. Government organizations, charitable organizations, and seniors’ groups may be very interested.

g. Last but not least, the creators of Life Stories themselves can enjoy occasionally revisiting their own creations. These visits can bring back good memories, offer reminders of life lessons, bring up ideas for improvements to the Life Stories (soft copies can easily be revised), and inspire thoughts of additional stories to include. Similarly, the students who aided in the Life Stories creation process might in subsequent months and years want to pay a visit to the seniors whom they helped.

Conclusion

The authors of this article hope that the readers of this article will attempt their own Life Stories and/or help others in creating theirs. The article has proposed that students at secondary and tertiary levels be involved in co-constructing Life Stories with seniors. The article described the various characteristics of Life Stories, including that they are self-selected collections of memories of various lengths, involving various modes of communication, and in any language. Next, the article suggested possible benefits of the Life Stories co-creation process for both the seniors and the students. Finally, recommendations were made about how to do, store, and share Life Stories.

To conclude, co-constructing Life Stories represents one of many possible paths toward a more connected, more reflective, and healthier world. When students co-construct Life Stories with seniors, the students are contributing to social enhancement through story sharing.  These stories are our stories, because regardless of what generation, country, religion, ethnicity, even species we belong to, we are all part of an interdependent community of earthlings, earthlings living on a planet endangered by the foolishness of one species. Thus, anyone’s story is everyone’s story. Let us learn about and share stories as a way of understanding and acknowledging our commonalities and promoting greater social connections and more sustainable lifestyles.

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