The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in eight Americans over age 60 complain 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.
One way to preserve and possibly enhance memory is to proactively revisit your past. Reminiscence therapy is one technique option, with uses ranging from mental health interventions to memory care in nursing homes. But sometimes, simply committing your life experiences to paper (virtual or otherwise) can also be helpful and even therapeutic.
A variety of research studies have explored the health benefits of writing. The American Psychological Association, for instance, published a study indicating that expressive writing reduces “intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events,” allowing for better coping and improved working memory. Additionally, work by neurologist Judy Willis MD finds that reflective writing, when well guided, may be a source of conceptual development and stimulate the “brain’s highest cognition.”
Whether you or someone you know is impacted by a memory deficit, or you’re simply seeking 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
There are a variety of online writing platforms to help you organize your thoughts and store them in one place, including journaling apps, memoir-writing software, and other platforms with 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
A common struggle for people writing for the first time is not knowing where to begin. Prompts like “Who was your childhood best friend?” can provide direction and inspiration. Object or photo prompts may be similarly effective.
A simple question like ‘What’s your favorite book?’ can bring you back to that time you were 8 years old and finished your first Nancy Drew book (or maybe Hardy Boys book if you’re a man.) A small thing like a book can bring clarity to the timeline of the memory, and lead you to recall other things from that same time period.
#3: Don’t worry about chronology
The process of recording your memories doesn’t always have to follow a chronological order. Sometimes following a timeline can take away focus and affect what you’re inspired to share. It’s generally 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. 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, or before you go to sleep? 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 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.
Whether you or a loved one is facing memory challenges, or you simply want to preserve your memories for your children or grandchildren, filling in the memory gaps can be rewarding. 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. The company is headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii.