Recording life histories has value

Several programs in Central Oregon help seniors write their own memories

By Mac McLean / The Bulletin / @agingbeat

Published Feb 22, 2013 at 04:00AM

Coming of age during the early days of the Cold War, Bob Vancil hated the communists. There was no doubt about it.

The retired high school teacher blamed them for starting the Korean War, and after watching newsreels that played at the movies every time he went to see a film as a teenager, he began to think communists were no better, if not worse, than the despots who ruled Germany, Italy and Japan during World War II.

But Vancil's opinion changed in the 1990s when he flew from Oregon to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk and met some communists face to face.

“Every person I visited with was genuinely concerned about their sons and daughters,” Vancil, 73, said as he read about this experience during a STORIESconnectUS meeting last week. “(And I thought,) 'How could I hate these people? All they really wanted was a better world for their offspring.'”

Through STORIESconnectUS and other writing programs like it, older adults across the region are given a chance to look back on their memories and commit them to paper. Experts say this experience is an opportunity to reconnect with a part of their lives - one that may remind them about what they've accomplished and who they are - and record their stories so that future generations will get a chance to learn about their past.

“We know people across the board will benefit when they get an opportunity to really sit down and write their life stories,” said Dana Perry, who started the writing program almost two years ago.

The program

During each STORIES- connectUS meeting, participants write a two-page essay about a particular moment or theme in their lives. Vancil wrote his Novosibirsk essay for an assignment on tolerance, while others in last week's session read a story about the holidays. The program's participants then share and discuss each other's stories and topics without critiquing the written work.

Perry made it clear that the program is not a writing workshop, but more of a forum where people can express themselves and reflect on their lives. Critiquing their work for poor grammar or word choice, she said, would be “like editing someone's letters.”

The group-based structure used in Perry's program draws its inspiration from a guided autobiography courses gerontologist James Birren developed more than 30 years ago, said Chris Wolsko, a psychology professor with Oregon State University- Cascades Campus.

Wolsko and Perry teamed up to start STORIESconnect-US in November 2010 and offered the first series of meetings at Hospice of Redmond in 2011. The two are now working with community organizationCentral Oregon Council on Aging and a local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter to expand the program and possibly set it up as a stand-alone nonprofit group.

Wolsko said Birren's approach to writing autobiographies has several benefits because it incorporates many elements used in group therapy sessions. People work as individuals when they write their stories and sometimes find relief when they write about something they were holding back for a long period of time, he said. Then they get a sense of validation when they share their stories in a supportive environment.

“It's a perfect tool to get people thinking about their lives,” Diane Kellstrom, the bereavement coordinator with Hospice of Redmond, who hosted the workshop when it first started out. “It brings the past back to life (for people) and connects them with it.”

Reconnect with one's self

Perry worked closely with Kellstrom when she was ready to run the first series of STORIESconnectUS meetings in September 2011. The program's first 20 participants had all experienced the loss of a loved one and had signed up with the hospice's grief counseling program. Kellstrom said many of these people, who were between the ages of 56 and 82, were having problems re-establishing their identities as individuals rather than as somebody's spouse.

“They felt like they didn't have a purpose any more,” she said, adding this was usually harder for the women than it was for the men. “The days of being a wife or a mother were behind them and they didn't know who or what they were.”

As they went through the process, Kellstrom said she saw how one person's story might prompt someone else in the group to think about the same time period in their lives — for instance, hearing Vancil read about the Cold War might have prompted someone else in the group to think about their experiences during that time — and an accomplishment they may have overlooked because it had been overshadowed by something else.

Often, people look back on a time when their family was struggling, realize the role they played in getting through it and come back with a much better image of who they were and what they could accomplish.

“You could see them evolving back into the strong women they had been before their loss,” she said, adding that this experience alone was enough to inspire someone grieving the loss of a loved one to keep living and do more with their lives.

Saving history

Judy Bowden, 80, didn't think her life was interesting when she signed up for STORIESconnectUS. But as she progressed through her writing assignments, she realized she had done a lot more than she thought and seemed satisfied with its results. What she may not have realized was that by preserving her stories, she was also preserving a little bit of history.

When she read her holiday traditions essay, Bowden talked about how people sometimes missed plucking a few pin feathers when they cooked a holiday turkey and got an unpleasant surprise. She also wrote about one afternoon when she was 6 and saw the Rockettes take the stage dressed as toy soldiers.

“Sixty years later, that routine is still a part of the program,” Bowden said of the performance and how excited she was to see it.

Gordon Gillespie, executive director of Prineville's Bowman Museum, said stories like these are important to record because they can add a lot of detail and perspective to the basic facts recorded in many historical accounts. His museum and the Crook County Historical Society have been working to record these stories and they're also thinking about turning to STORIES-connectUS for help.

Gillespie said his efforts at recording history have been focused on having a single person interview people about a certain topic — ranching and farming, the timber industry and World War II — and recording those interviews so they can be featured as part of an exhibit. But he knows this program is limited because one person can only do one interview at a time and they have to pick the people they interview.

“We certainly don't have the time to do what Dana's doing,” he said, explaining that STORIESconnectUS is a more efficient way of collecting these stories because it creates an atmosphere where several people write stories all at once.

In addition to being free of these personnel and time limitations, Gillespie said the program has been able to help people come out of their shells. His oral history interview subjects are limited to the people who come forward or are recommended by someone else, he said, adding that if someone doesn't come forward to be interviewed, he might miss their stories altogether and miss their contributions to history.

“You lose people,” he said. “They die and they take their stories with them.”

Connect with your stories

STORIESconnectUS is a collaboration between OSU-Cascades Campus and program founder Dana Perry that helps people write their autobiographies. To learn more, call 541-420-4301.