Journaling Improves Health and Self-Esteem
Writing Helps People Cope with Change and Express Emotions
Studies have shown that expressing emotions in writing has numerous health benefits, including reducing:
Writing exercises can also boost self-esteem, said Susan Harman, a marriage and family therapist in Northern California. Harman is the co-founder of Sojourna Productions, a communications company that helps people to tell their stories. Harman works with people of all ages, but is often approached by children who want help interviewing their parents for a family history - either by videotaping an interview with the parent, or by helping family members prepare a book or album.
There are different styles of journal writing - reflective writing and cathartic writing are two examples. In reflective writing, the senior tells a story. It can be about something that happened today or about something that happened years ago, in childhood, for example. The writer is not limited to writing a chronological story of their life. They can describe events and memories as they occur to them. This approach is especially effective when writing about life changes, such as changes in housing or the development of an illness.
Cathartic writing can be a safe place to let out feelings including anger, frustration, or grief. It can also be a place to express great joy. A writer can begin with the phrase "Right now I feel," and then continue with whatever comes to mind. Much like a teenager's diary, such journals may end up being private. It's important to note that while many writers record their thoughts for an audience, some writers prefer to keep a private journal.
Storytelling is a powerful process, especially when an older person wants to write about a period in their lives, perhaps a time of transition, in which they needed to draw upon or develop strengths, Harman says. Some elders will prefer to write down their thoughts privately. Others may need some prompting. A caregiver doesn't need to be a professional interviewer to get their relatives to open up, Harman says. Here are some effective guidelines to follow:
Listen to and read their notes respectfully. Don't correct what you perceive to be historical inaccuracies - this is their story - not yours.
Ask questions neutrally - for example, "What was it like arriving at Ellis Island?" not, "Weren't you frightened when you arrived at Ellis Island?"
Be patient if the senior takes a long time to speak or record their thoughts - don't finish sentences for them. Keep asking for more details, for example, "What kind of food did they serve at your wedding? Did you get a lot of presents? Do you remember the toasts that they gave?"
Additionally, Kathleen Adams, a psychotherapist who heads the Denver-based Center for Journal Therapy, suggests the following tip for encouraging seniors in journal writing.
Writing can be painful for arthritic hands and shoulders, and aging eyes. Keep handwritten tasks brief, or offer to "scribe" for the elder by writing down an oral story. Tape recorders can also be helpful.
Sometimes people have a hard time getting started with a writing exercise. It can be helpful to dig out a box of old photographs to use as story starters. If a senior is cognitively impaired, they may respond beautifully to poetry. Read poems aloud, to invite a spoken poem. If the elder is still having trouble getting started consider the following list of topics as a starting place from which to begin writing.
Describe your first job.
What do you remember about your parents?
What historical event has meant the most to you?
What invention has meant the most to you?
Can you describe your school days?
What are your favorite holidays? Why are they your favorite? What special memories do you have?
What do you remember about the birth of your first child?
What pets have you had? What pets did your children have?
You can construct a chronological life history chart filling in significant life events. This can serve as the framework for many small stories which, when strung together, create an autobiography. Check out our worksheet to help you chart a chronological history of key life events.
You can start a "wisdom keeper's journal" and invite the elder to jot down the lessons and advice they would pass on to future generations.
In this, the age of electronic communication, many people communicate through quick e-mail messages and cell phone conversations on the run. Many younger people, however, treasure letters sent to them by grandparents. And many older people feel more comfortable expressing thoughts in the form of a letter.
Letter writing can also be helpful in dealing with sad emotions following death or divorce. In many cases these letters will never be sent, but instead serve as a form of emotional release.
As a caregiver, you can help encourage letter and journal writing in a myriad of ways. For example, you might give the senior a box of stationery, a book of stamps, or a new, blank, journal. The results may surprise and enrich you!