Healthier aging through sharing life stories
September 28, 2020
September is Healthy Aging Month, a national observance to draw attention to the lifestyle choices and behaviors that can promote healthy aging for older Americans. In her course, “OT 538: Adulthood and Aging,” Associate Professor of Research Stacey Schepens Niemiec assigns students a project using the power of personal stories to highlight occupations that contribute to meaningful older life experiences. To learn more, Student Ambassador Lamoni Lucas MA ’21 asked Schepens Niemiec to explain the inspiration and purpose of the “Life Story” project, and four OT 538 students to reflect on the project and its mementos.
Schepens Niemiec: Life storytelling — sharing one’s personal life experiences and stories with others — is a meaningful, culturally rich, shared occupation that can be powerfully health-promoting. Life storytelling can help people make sense of their lives, become more aware of the scripts that have influenced their stories, form social bonds and adjust to threats to their identity as they move across the life course. Indeed, occupational therapists deeply appreciate the value of life narratives, as the process contributes to holistic assessment and therapeutic intervention.
Unfortunately, some life stories are untold, silenced or uncelebrated for various reasons. For example, a disability might hinder the ability to communicate experiences, or narratives may remain untold if no listener is available to hear them. The “Life Story” project breaks those barriers. It provides students with a dedicated opportunity to take on the role of story listener by engaging in an in-depth conversation with an older adult. To facilitate those conversations, students draw upon concepts such as narrative storytelling, reminiscence and life review. The end goal of the project is for students to construct a tangible keepsake representing the older adult’s told story. The keepsake can then be used in the future to spark conversation with others, and provide an avenue to share and celebrate life’s complexities through personal storytelling.
This year’s Life Story project was particularly important given the COVID-19 crisis that necessitated social and physical distancing. Such safety mandates have had the unfortunate consequence of exacerbating the health-diminishing social isolation already experienced by far too many older adults pre-pandemic. Moreover, as news and social media outlets continue to spread ageist ideas like “Senior Deleter,” “Boomer Remover,” and “thinning of the herd,” now more than ever is the need for opportunities to reduce tensions between age cohorts and strengthen the solidarity and support that can be offered between generations. The Life Story project was one such avenue to facilitate positive, intergenerational social interaction and effectuate this much-needed social connectedness necessary to help humankind survive this global health crisis.
Regina Mak MA ’21: I met my older adult this spring through the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s Age-Friendly Student Senior Connection program. We had more than 30 hours of wonderful conversation over several months, so I thought this keepsake would be a wonderful gift to thank him for talking to me and teaching me so much!
In our conversations, we would practice gratitude, and he would tell me the things we were grateful for, which is represented by the string art piece of a tree with heart-shaped “fruits” labeled with various topics and people. Some of the things that he was grateful for were his family, the ability to embrace challenges, perseverance and determination and the ability to love others. We discussed how he has been more optimistic and more appreciative as he has grown older. The full-grown tree symbolizes his growth in his practice of gratitude throughout the years, and how he has grown to value the “little things” in life. He discussed how being optimistic and being appreciative is a skill to be learned, like a muscle that gets strengthened over the years. He shared how he was grateful for his resiliency and his perseverance, similar to a grown tree surviving various seasons throughout the decades.
Sammy Yo MA ’21: This keepsake was inspired by a picture of the storyteller and her mother together. She shared her phone wallpaper with me, and she shared how much it means to her. It was from her mother’s last visit to the U.S. before her passing. It was one of the few pictures they had, just the two of them, together. Because the second anniversary of her mother’s passing is approaching, I wanted to create something that encompasses that special memory. It is a tangible reminder that even though she is not physically here anymore, she is still very much with her.
Tess Mayer MA ’21: In June of 1968, my grandparents, Maureen and Wayne, bought a white Volkswagen bus, packed up their two-year-old daughter (my mother), and drove from Georgia to Alaska. They wanted to leave Georgia in search of new adventure. What better place to go than Alaska!?
At the time, Alaska had only been a state for nine years, and this wilderness was appealing to them. Once they entered the state, they came to a fork in the road: one direction took them to Fairbanks, and the other went to Anchorage. Having no solid plan, they flipped a coin to decide their direction. They have spent the past 52 years since then in Anchorage, enjoying nature, working in the school district and raising three children. This keepsake is a recreation of their bus, and includes several Alaskan staples including the Northern Lights and various wildlife.
While they were telling me about their story, my grandmother Maureen showed me a scrapbook from their trip. The writing on the keepsake replicates her handwriting from the scrapbook including the phrase “Alaska or Bust.” This long and drastic move across the country led to a lifetime of of adventure, snow and the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Savi Lurie MA ’21: When I was tasked to develop a keepsake for an older adult in my life, I immediately knew who I wanted to create one for — my grandfather Selwyn Lurie, or Papa Selwyn, as I call him. Selwyn has lived 98 extremely eventful years in different places all around the world. This Prezi presentation represents the global impact that my grandfather has made, and continues to make, throughout his lifetime. Each place on the map details a variety of selfless and brave acts that Selwyn made, including raising a family and building a construction company in South Africa and Zimbabwe; becoming a pilot and fighting in World War Two in India and Burma; and building a city in Israel to provide housing, rehabilitation and relief for the victims of Nazism and the war. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to learn more about my grandfather’s life and create an interactive map to detail all his amazing accomplishments!
My grandfather still lives independently with my grandmother to this day, only a few blocks away from all eight of his grandchildren (me included) and our parents. Selwyn’s life is an incredible example of healthy aging. What is his secret to living such a long, happy and successful life, you may ask? He says: “Be mentally and physically active, make quick decisions and act promptly, make the most of everyday and every opportunity, plan in advance, work hard and play hard, be organized, alert and persevere (humor always helps), always be considerate to others and, last but not least, get married to a loving and supportive wife/partner! Together we’ve always faced everything with a smile, a positive outlook and enjoyed life to the fullest.”