Introducing PWN’s Life Stories Classes for Seniors
“Power” is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Project Write Now’s Life Stories classes, designed for seniors to write and share their stories. The kind of power that comes from unleashing a long-untold story, from reminiscing and making sense of one’s life experiences. Or the power that comes from arranging old stories into a new framework, creating a richer understanding of the past.
I have witnessed this power transform lives while teaching a monthly writing workshop with a group of senior women in Red Bank. I begin our sessions with a prompt—reading a poem, sifting through photographs, providing an evocative word, phrase, or question—and then the women begin freewriting in their notebooks. Sketches take the shape of stories, telling of triumphs and heartaches, sometimes with humor and sometimes with grit.
After we write, we share. The women report how close and united the group has become through the sharing. We laughed hearing about a sloppy first kiss being interrupted by a tap on the shoulder from a scowling nun. They nodded in acknowledgement when recounting stories of a lie: letting a brother take the blame for stolen money, juggling two boyfriends on the same night, or feigning illness to keep a cherished mother home by their side.
I remind the writers to incorporate the five senses in their writing, and to take note of their effect. One student wrote about the squeaky sound of the coiled spring in the old screen door to her aunt’s beach bungalow—a blissful summer haven where they rode banana seat bikes along the shore to get ice cream, staying out until dark, and then collapsing into bed with hair still matted with the kiss of the sea.
The themes of family and relationships seem to circulate and resonate the most. One student wrote about how as a young couple she and her husband bought a chicken coop for their starter house, which evolved into a place she still calls home some 50 years later. She wrote about juggling working and having babies, and the group encouraged her, finding themselves in her words, then finding their own words. Another wrote of her travels to Asia for work. She wrote of packing the night before a flight and feeling gratitude for her mother’s presence to help her with raising her children, now adults embarking on their own world travels.
The class has not shied away from difficult topics, writing about times of loss, the death of parents, siblings, and spouses, as well as the need to be at peace with uncertainty—because all that is certain is moving forward. Writing about their grief transforms the experience from tragedy to an opportunity for wisdom, which they collectively understand, and allow one another to share.
Unearthing our life stories has immense healing power and the vocalization of them provides a sense of connection and validation that has lasting ripple effects. Studies have shown that this connection is especially helpful for seniors to stave off loneliness, invigorate the mind, and reduce anxiety about their mortality—a universal fear that can be mitigated with the company and support of others.
Research has also shown that writing their life stories can help seniors make sense of their experiences, reflecting on decisions they’ve made and the outcomes. For many, that reflection generates not only understanding but also gratitude, a feeling of a life fully lived. Others are writing stories to pass down to their children and grandchildren, preserving their family history, a gift for future generations.
It is an honor for me to guide these stories forth, witnessing all manners of magic as their storytelling invites deeper introspection, thoughtful conversation, and meaningful connection. The seniors come to class excited to discover what memories will be stirred and which stories will emerge. They look forward to listening to their peers, learning more about one another with each session, feeling comfort and validation in the exchange.
Their comments, “I haven’t thought about that in years,” “It feels good to get this out,” “Once I start writing I can’t stop,” capture the joy of this experience for them and for me.