John Spevak: Sharing life stories has benefits -- come to class and see

August 25, 2012 

Stories are an essential part of the human experience. They're told in movies, in the news and around the kitchen table.

Telling personal stories is important to people of all ages, including the 3-year-old's account of how her knee was bruised, the 7-year-old's narration of his imaginary adventure and the teenager's posting on Facebook.

Telling stories is particularly important to older adults. Their stories not only describe for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren what life was like in years past, but also reveal much about the personality and character of the storyteller.

Moreover, if older adults write their stories, the accounts of their lives can remain permanently -- even in a simple three-ring binder -- within their family's history.

I'm glad to report that "Writing Your Life Stories" -- an informal class designed especially for older adults to preserve their stories -- will again be offered in Los Banos starting the day after Labor Day.

On Sept. 4 at 2 p.m., the class will convene at the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, 1826 S. Center St.

The class meets Tuesdays from 2 to 4 p.m. in an LDS meeting room; it is free and open to everyone regardless of age.

To join the intimate gathering, just show up and take a seat. No forms have to be filled out; there is no fee. And there are no attendance requirements: participants come when they can.

The class has a simple format. The leader provides an assignment or prompt for the following week. The participants, if they desire, write about that prompt or about any other topic they wish.

The following week, participants who want to read their stories share them with others in the class. Nothing is collected or graded. (Anyone seeking more information can call John at (209) 752-8800.)

The class is made possible thanks to the generosity of the ward and stake leaders of the LDS church. They have opened their doors to the group because they recognize the importance of the class.

Life stories intertwine with ancestry, which the worldwide LDS church values. Within the LDS facility in Los Banos, for example, is the Family History Center, staffed by church volunteers.

This is the fifth year the life stories class, in various venues, has been offered in Los Banos. Each year the value of class is reaffirmed by new research about the importance of stories in our lives.

Recently, when I was in Ohio, I heard about the Intergenerational School in Cleveland. This charter school was started nine years ago by Dr. Peter Whitehouse, a geriatric-specialist neuroscientist with an interest in Alzheimer's patients, and his wife, Dr. Catherine Whitehouse, an educator and child development psychologist specializing in reading and learning disabilities.

Sharing their ideas, they realized how older adults and young children can learn from each other, so they created a grade school on the premise.

One of the signature elements of the charter school is increasing the exposure among children and seniors. Their program connects children with older adults in nearby assisted living facilities.

The school uses senior citizens, including those experiencing Alzheimer's, as reading mentors. The mentors work with children one on one to share the enjoyment of reading and storytelling. The stories the seniors tell are primarily their own life stories.

Through this interchange, the children are exposed to a variety of experiences and cultures, while absorbing the concept of lifelong learning. The older adults increase their longevity and quality of life as they activate their minds.

The Intergenerational School has excellent results. The school has consistently won awards and been recognized for its excellence. In 2011 it was rated "excellent, with distinction" by the Ohio Department of Education, its highest rating.

The Intergenerational School shows how important it is for older adults to share their experiences with younger generations.

As it turns out, stories are more than stories. They are a path to quality learning and living.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 29 years, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to john.spevak@gmail.com.

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