For the Family

Memoir 101: How to Write Your Life Story

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Night by Eli Wiesel. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen.

These are all best-selling memoirs, authored by people who felt compelled to remember their past and write it all down. Just like these authors, we all have untold stories within us. Whether you want to leave a legacy, share a life lesson, make sense of a certain time in your life, or help others through your personal experiences, memoir writing is a wonderful gift—therapeutic for you and meaningful to your loved ones. No one wants friends or family to one day think: “I wish I would have asked them about that when I had the chance.”

So, why don’t more people take the time to capture their thoughts and feelings around major life events?

There are a few reasons, and they’re all misconceptions. You don’t have to be a professional writer to write a memoir, just write from the heart. You don’t have to be famous. And you don’t have to detail the entire storyline of your life—that’s an autobiography—and autobiographies can be a daunting idea, whether you’re 40 or 90.

According to Reader’s Digest, a memoir is your version of what happened during a specific time in your life; whereas an autobiography is the chronological telling of your experiences, with a timeline, focused on facts. A memoir is less formal, less encompassing, less obsessed with factual events, and more concerned with “an emotional truth toward a particular section of one’s life.” It’s mostly written from memory—not intended to be an accurate statistical report.

With memoir writing, facts and figures don’t tell the whole story. In order to make your experiences come to life, you also need to include feelings. According to author Bart Astor of Baby Boomer’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents, “No one else has had your experiences or reacted in the same way.” People connect with emotions, descriptions, dialogue, and personality. It’s YOUR story—no one can tell it the same as you. After you write it all down, your loved ones will want to read it!

But where do you begin?

  • Start by reading memoirs. Just reading about another person’s experiences will help you understand more about tone and theme. A list of the top 50 memoirs can be found here.
  • Think about the pivotal moments in your life. Which ones really mattered? (Remember, this isn’t your autobiography. You don’t have to write about the entirety of your life.)
  • To get the words flowing, look at a photo that evokes a strong reaction. What do you hear, smell, feel, see? Repeat this process with a few different photos.
  • Write the way you talk—in a conversational way. It’s more engaging and easier to read. (Don’t be too formal.) Be honest. It’s ok to show your flaws; everyone can relate to making mistakes.
  • Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or quality. Just get it all down. You can fix it later.
  • Believe in yourself!

If you feel like some of your memories are a little fuzzy, you can always include a disclaimer at the end saying: “These events are my memories. Others may remember events differently.”

If you still need inspiration, these questions might help get the creative juices flowing:

Where were you born? Was there anything unique about your birth?

What’s your earliest memory?

What toy do you most remember getting at Christmas?

Did you have any pets growing up?

What family vacation do you most remember from your youth?

Who was your favorite teacher? Why?

What was your favorite subject?

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Were you in any extracurricular activities?

Who were your childhood friends?

What did you do for fun when you were young?

Did you get an allowance? How much? How did you earn it?

What was your first car?

Who were your high school friends?

What did you learn about yourself in high school?

Are you more like your mom or your dad? How?

When was the first time you saw your parents cry?

Who was your first crush?

Who was your first kiss?

Who was your first love?

What’s your favorite city to visit?

What’s the farthest from home you’ve traveled?

What impact has religion had in your life?

Did you go to college? What did you study?

What was the greatest success in your career?

What did you do with your first “big” paycheck?

What was the biggest sacrifice you ever made?

What time(s) in history will you always remember?

Name a time you were on top of the world.

Name a time you were overcome with sadness.

As a youth, did you break any bones? Need stitches?

What was your first job?

What was your favorite job?

Who were your role models when you were young?

What have you done that you never thought you’d do?

What do you know about your family history/heritage?

What’s your favorite holiday tradition? Why?

(If applicable): How did you meet your spouse? When did you know he/she was “the one?” What was your marriage proposal like?

Where was your wedding? How many guests attended? What did you serve? What do you remember about that day?

(If applicable): Tell me about the time(s) your kid(s) were born.

How would you describe your kids’ personalities? Grandkids?

What person most influenced you in life?

What makes you happy?

What’s your dream for future generations?

Now get to writing! Good luck! 

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5 Ways to Preserve Your Family Legacy

We build a legacy every day we’re alive. It’s evident in our beliefs, values, experiences, and how we choose to give back. It’s evident in how we respond to life’s challenges. A legacy isn’t just what we’ve earned, but what we’ve learned. Don’t let untold stories from your past become lost. Here are five ways to record, celebrate, and connect with family while creating a legacy keepsake:

Create a family tree scrapbook. Start with the most recent family members and move outwards, rather than the other way around. Include important dates, migration from one country to another, family traditions, hereditary information, interesting keepsakes (receipts, concert tickets, etc.), and photos from all stages of life—not just the younger years. Ask family members to create their own pages so they can control their messages and how they most want to be remembered. *Tip: Be careful when handling old photos. Touch only the corners. Make sure all photos have captions. Journaling is a key part of scrapbooking. You want to know who you’re looking at and why those photos have significance.

Gather essays and compile them into a collection. Ask family members to fill out questionnaires (city and hospital where they were born, first/memorable/current jobs, schools, where they’ve lived, children, travels, favorite foods, sports, experiences) and create a book.  Another idea? Ask the family to answer a series of questions every year on the same holiday: what’s one lesson you learned this year, favorite TV show/book/movie, how you spent your last birthday, life lessons, advice, memorable moments, etc.

Interview family members on video and create a documentary. Don’t know what equipment to use or how to make a documentary? This website provides a helpful step-by-step “how-to” guide: www.desktop-documentaries.com.

Create an inventory of family artifacts/heirlooms. Ever wondered about the story behind that family heirloom? Create a place to store that information. What is the item? What are the family stories/memories associated with it? When was it made or acquired? Who owned it first? Who owns it now?

Put together a heritage recipe cookbook. For some families, their best memories are wrapped in memorable meals. If recipes have been handed down through the generations, compile those in a cookbook. In addition to the recipe, you can include photos of the meal and the person or family who first made it, the person or family who submitted it for the cookbook, and any special memories associated with it.

In the wise words of actor Michael J. Fox, “Family isn’t just an important thing, it’s everything.” Take steps now to record your memories of the past—and help preserve those moments long into the future.

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What Seniors Need to Know About Heart Health

Contrary to popular belief, a heart attack isn’t always like what you see on TV, with an older man dramatically clutching his chest before falling to the ground. It can affect men and women of all ages in different ways—sometimes without any chest pain at all.  In honor of February being National Heart Month, we at American Baptist Homes of the Midwest felt it was important to shine a spotlight on heart attack warning signs and controllable risk factors.

First, though, what is a heart attack?

HEART ATTACK EXPLAINED

According to the American Heart Association, “a heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely.” Essentially, the arteries become clogged, eventually starving the heart of the oxygen it needs to function properly. It is different from cardiac arrest, which means the heart actually stops beating. While it’s true that a severe heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest, they aren’t the same thing. A heart attack is a circulation problem and cardiac arrest is an electrical problem. Cardiac arrest can be reversed if—within minutes—CPR is performed and a defibrillator is used to shock the heart back to its normal rhythm. Minutes can make all the difference in restoring circulation to the heart. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the pain and hope it will go away.Trust your intuition and get help right away. Pain should be respected. It’s proof that something is wrong. 

According to the American Heart Association, call 911 if you feel:

  • Chest discomfort: If you have discomfort in the center of your chest lasting more than a few minutes—either an uncomfortable squeezing, pressure, or pain—get to a hospital.
  • Pain or discomfort radiating down one or both arms, irregular pain in the lower or upper back (indicating stress to the heart muscle), neck, jaw, or stomach. The reason you might feel pain in one of these spots rather than in your heart is because of nerve proximity. This is called “referred pain.” Your brain is confusing those signals and thinks the heart’s pain is the jaw (or back, or neck), calling for help.
  • Shortness of breath: If you feel like you ran a race and you didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, this is a red flag. Blocked blood flow to the heart can affect your breathing, whether you feel this way upon waking up, walking up a flight of steps, or going about your typical daily routine. If you suddenly feel like you can’t catch your breath and you didn’t feel that way before when doing the same types of activities, alarm bells should be sounding.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, feeling nauseous or vomiting, feeling dizzy or light-headed, or experiencing extreme fatigue. These symptoms often affect more women than men who mistakenly diagnose themselves with the flu. The difference? These symptoms are typically extreme, sometimes accompanied by heart burn or chest pressure.

If you think you’re having a heart attack, call 911 and say, “I’m having a heart attack.” Don’t try to drive to the nearest hospital. Chew an uncoated aspirin and wait for help to arrive.

RISK FACTORS 

The more risk factors you can keep in check, the less likely you are to have a heart attack. Protect your heart at all stages of life through doing the following:

Exercising: Move your body at least 30 minutes a day. Start by walking, strength training, or stretching. You are never too old to exercise. If you have a chronic condition, though, be sure to get sign-off from your physician.

Eating right: Fuel your body with fruits, vegetables, plant-based proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry, and fish. Eat less salt. Watch portion sizes. Limit the junk food.

Keeping your weight down: Do you know your body mass index? If not, you can figure it out on this handy BMI calculator.

Quitting smoking. Just one year after quitting, you’ll reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by 50 percent.

Knowing your numbers: High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes are all risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Know your numbers.

Heart disease isn’t an inevitable part of aging. By knowing the signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease—and the importance of controllable heart-healthy habits—you can protect your heart long into the future.

American Baptist Homes of the Midwest has senior living communities in Harlan, Iowa; Denver, Colorado; Omaha, Nebraska; Albert Lea, Minnesota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Milwaukee; Wisconsin. Our mission is to create healthy Christian communities that empower older adults, families, and people with disabilities through providing choices for housing, services, and technology that enrich body, mind, and spirit.

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Tis The Season: Helping Seniors Manage Holiday Stress

Some of the things we love most about the holiday season can make it a stressful time as we get older. While the focus on family, traditions, and beloved memories normally brings us joy, it can cause feelings of melancholy in older adults. If you’re celebrating the holidays with a senior who may be at risk for holiday blues, follow these tips to help minimize the negative impact of holiday stressors on their mood during this season.

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Celebrating the holidays in assisted living

Every family has its own set of traditions that make the holiday season special. Typically, those traditions involve the whole extended family gathering under one roof for the holidays. When a member of your family is in assisted living or memory care, that might not be possible. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up holiday traditions when a loved one moves to assisted living. Holiday traditions remain as important as ever. They might just look a little different.

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