If you’re old enough to remember the John F. Kennedy assassination or the Cuban missile crisis, you’re probably realizing that your memory isn’t what it used to be. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control has reported that one in eight Americans over the age of 60 complains of worsening memory loss. The problem may be related to a medical condition, emotional problems, cognitive impairment or simply the indignities of aging, but it’s distressing regardless of the cause.
As it turns out, one way to preserve and in some cases even enhance memory is to proactively revisit your past. A technique called reminiscence therapy that is widely used in applications ranging from mental health interventions to memory care in nursing homes is one form. But simply committing your life experiences to paper (virtual or otherwise) can be helpful and even therapeutic.
That, at least, is what we hear from users of JamBios, a free online platform that provides a chapter-style framework to write and save the stories of your life. In one case, for example, a woman who suffered severe trauma as a child discovered that using the platform to write about her memories was like a key that unlocked them: “I’ve found it easier to remember my past, even those memories which I thought no amount of therapy and psychoanalysis would bring back.”
Research also shows the health benefits of writing. Over a decade ago, the American Psychological Association published a study indicating that expressive writing reduces “intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory.” Researchers concluded that these improvements help individuals cope more effectively with stress, because they have freed up cognitive resources.
More recently, in discussing the use of writing in education, neurologist Judy Willis MD noted that writing can “enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information… it promotes the brain’s attentive focus … boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain’s highest cognition.” In other words, writing can transform an individual’s brain and memory.
Whether you or someone you know is impacted by a memory deficit, or you are simply looking for a way to tell your own story for yourself and your family, here are five simple strategies for preserving and sharing your memories in writing.
#1: Choose a writing aid
Today’s technology offers a variety of writing platforms to help you organize your thoughts and store them in one place. There are personal blogs, journaling applications, memoir writing software, and reminiscing platforms like JamBios that offer pre-defined topics to help trigger memories. Many of these solutions are free and can give you the structure you need to both simplify and encourage the process.
#2: Use prompts
When people sit down to write for the first time, they often don’t know where to begin. A prompt like “Who was your childhood best friend?” or “What was the first pet you owned?” can provide direction as well as get the memory juices flowing. The same thing can be accomplished by using prompts like objects or photos.
Says one JamBios user, “A simple question like ‘What’s your favorite book?’ brings you back to that time you were 5 years old and fell in love with Harry Potter for the first time. And then, just like that, you remember. You, stealing ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ copy your dad had from his bedside table and sneaking behind a couch to read it before he came home … A small thing like a book straightens my timeline of memories in such a way that, if I try to think as hard as I can about it, I can start recalling some other things from that period of time. And that way, things keep coming back, and back, and back.”
#3: Don’t worry about chronology
Recording your memories doesn’t always have to follow a chronological order. Sometimes attempting to follow a timeline can prevent you from writing about what you’re feeling or affect what you’re inspired to share. I’ve learned from personal experience that it’s better to write about a memory or a moment in time as you think about it, even if it’s out of sequence with other memories you’ve jotted down.
Maybe it’s your first car or your first kiss. Your favorite pets or favorite trips. Family holidays or family problems. Write what you want, when you want, and break it up into pieces to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the size of the project.
#4: Find your writing sweet spot
Some people write better after their first cup of coffee. Others are more productive midday or at night. Start by recognizing what works best for you. Ask yourself when your words seem to flow best. Is it as soon as a memory pops into your head? Is it when you wake up each morning, or before you go to sleep each night? Try different approaches until you find the one that clicks.
#5: Invite others to contribute
Several years ago, my family began reminiscing via a group email. We wrote about an old bar in Boston that my grandfather owned, which prompted an engrossing series of stories from my dad and uncles about the barmaids, the keys to the liquor cabinet, and some incidents involving local law enforcement that many of us had never heard. The more we wrote, the more everyone wanted to share and chime in, and the more we learned.
This kind of collaboration, made easy by today’s online environment, helps unearth details you may not remember or may not have known. With or without memory loss, it enriches the experience of taking a trip down memory lane.
Whether you or a loved one is facing memory challenges, or you simply want to preserve the memories you have for your children or grandchildren, filling in the memory gaps can be rewarding. With today’s technology, it’s easy to get started and remain consistent. There’s evidence it improves health and well-being. And if nothing else, it can be a great source of pleasure for you as well as your friends and family.
Beth N. Carvin is CEO and co-founder of JamBios (www.jambios.com), a collaborative writing application and social platform for reminiscing, sharing and preserving memories.