Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt once remarked, “Everyone has a story to tell. All you have to do is write it. But it’s not that easy.”
While the COVID pandemic and challenges in securing volunteer biographers have certainly proven McCourt’s maxim that storytelling isn’t always the easiest of endeavours, the Pastoral Care team at Anglicare Southern Queensland (ASQ) is excited to start a new chapter with their Biography Programme, which offers residents in aged care facilities the opportunity to work with a biographer to write their life’s story.
The initiative was launched right before the COVID pandemic and subsequently halted until earlier this year due to challenges in securing volunteer biographers. With a new year comes new opportunities and new volunteer biographers to help those in ASQ residential aged care facilities reminisce and turn their memories into written text.
ASQ’s Pastoral Care team members were inspired to introduce the programme after attending a workshop that explored the psychological and social benefits of reminiscing and writing one’s story.
For ASQ Spiritual and Pastoral Care Manager Colin Lim, the health and wellbeing benefits associated with such a programme meant it was an easy decision to add it to the team’s range of pastoral care services.
“Reminiscing and sharing one’s story allows our residents to focus on a pleasurable and productive activity, that is also a tool for life review,” Mr Lim said.
“One of the highlights of the programme so far has been to hear and see how a resident was able to find new meaning and purpose in life from telling their story, in spite of her declining health conditions.”
Beyond the health benefits for residents, the Biography Programme is a vital bridge between past and future generations, according to ASQ Spiritual and Pastoral Care Coordinator Deborah Stengert.
“At Anglicare Southern Queensland, we have access to multiple residential aged care facilities, filled with wonderful, unique, innovative individuals whose stories collectively inspire and uplift future generations,” Ms Stengert said
“Implementing this initiative is important because these stories may never be heard if we don’t make the space to listen, learn and honour their collective voices.”
At Edwin Marsden Tooth Memorial Home in the Brisbane seaside suburb of Manly, resident Olive Farr recently wrapped up work on her biography with volunteer biographer Lexie Keane.
The two-month process provided 99-year-old Mrs Farr with a life review that helped reconnect her with the essence of who she is, despite recent struggles with immobility and hearing and vision loss.
“Memories came forward that I thought I had forgotten,” Mrs Farr said.
“I enjoyed it; we laughed a lot and shed a few tears too. I loved every minute of it — I couldn’t believe it was happening to me.”
With the important task of ensuring Mrs Farr’s memories were properly captured on the page, Lexie Keane found the process an equally moving experience.
“Olive didn’t think she had a story to tell and wondered who would be interested,” Ms Keane said.
“However, through respectful conversation we connected and as we chatted her life story bubbled out.
“It was joyful, we shared laughter, the memories came forth, there was mutual respect for privacy, and the biography sessions were a safe space for Olive to express memories important to her.”
Ms Stengert said that a personal highlight of the journey to capture Mrs Farr’s story was during the final stages of production.
“When I read the final draft to Olive, I was surprised to see how much joy she experienced hearing the narrative of her life story retold,” she said.
“Olive laughed, cried, made amendments and appeared to totally enjoy reliving the memories.
“When we finished, Olive was laughing and said, ‘I’m overjoyed, it paints such a good picture,’ and I responded, ‘…of a life well lived!’ Olive thought for a moment and responded, ‘Yes, I think so.’”
In mid-June, Mrs Farr’s family and friends gathered at the home for the official biography presentation with attendees reflecting on the impact Mrs Farr has had on their lives.
At the conclusion of the Biography Programme, participants are presented with a beautiful document that includes their story and any photos the resident would like included — an important keepsake that can be passed on to future generations.
It’s experiences like Mrs Farr’s that Anglicare Southern Queensland hopes to replicate for other residents and Mr Lim wants to encourage residents to consider the programme.
“We value our residents, the people they’ve encountered and their experiences, and we would like to hear about it,” he said.
In addition to encouraging residents to get involved with the programme, Ms Stengert wants to stress that they’re also in search of more volunteer biographers.
“One challenge is finding volunteer biographers who have the skills, experience and sensitivity to work with residents in honouring the resident’s story,” she said.
“We are overcoming this challenge by continuing to advertise for volunteer biographers and we have been fortunate to have two new biographers join our team in recent weeks.”
Mrs Farr has a simple message for other residents considering getting involved: “Do it! It brought me so much happiness!”
Editor’s note: If you would like to volunteer for the Anglicare Southern Queensland Biography Programme, please contact Spiritual and Pastoral Care Manager Colin Lim via firstname.lastname@example.org.