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.
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.
#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.
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.