Senior Lifestyles

Past, present and future: StoriesUnfolding participants learn about themselves and each other – two pages at a time

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Courtesy of Margriet DeLange
Los Altos resident Margriet DeLange, above, has been leading StoriesUnfolding Guided Autobiography groups since 2006, an outlet for self-reflection and organizing thoughts.

Taking a cue from Kierkegaard’s quote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” members of the StoriesUnfolding group reflect on the past and use what they learn to better understand their present selves and to better prepare for the future.

Los Altos resident Margriet DeLange has been facilitating StoriesUnfolding Guided Autobiography groups since 2006. Over the years, she has worked with hundreds of participants throughout the Bay Area.

In addition to regular weekly groups, she has facilitated many workshops ranging from 90-minute to full-day events. She also runs groups for a Stanford University research project.

DeLange employs the Birren Method of Guided Autobiography developed by gerontologist James Birren in the 1970s, which involves personal reflection and writing on selected life themes to gain a perspective on one’s own life story; this is followed by reading and sharing in a group context.

A Certified Professional Gerontologist specializing in life review, DeLange is also the project director of the Senior Inclusion and Participation Project – another program aiming to recognize the life experience and continuing value of mature adults.

‘Something magic happens’

Groups normally meet weekly for six weeks, and participants often sign up for three or four series. DeLange’s current – and longest-running – group comprises six women, down from eight due to a death and a move. For five years, they met weekly at DeLange’s home, sharing tea and cookies as they shared their stories. They now meet monthly, and, in accordance with modern custom, gather via Zoom.

This is not a memoir-writing class – there’s no correcting of grammar or punctuation. The written pages serve as a tool for self-reflection and
organizing thoughts, though they can, if desired, later be shared with family and friends and become a sort of legacy. Some members have gone on to publish their work.

Each session features a new theme and questions, some from the Birren Method of Guided Autobiography, but mostly ones that DeLange has come up with.

“Right now, they’re writing about the journey on the ‘Corona River,’” she said.

Another recent topic was protest, inspired by the death of civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. She tries to stay away from politics, she noted.

But this group has already, over the years, covered many of the usual topics. In a group’s beginning stages, DeLange will use guided imagery.

“The river of your life, a tree with branches. … They start seeing their own life,” she said.

The first theme usually focuses on the participants’ background and family.

“I don’t ask about their parents,” DeLange said. “I ask, ‘Who was sitting at the head of the table when you grew up?’ That elicits stories. Hard topics, deeper existential topics, like death and dying, they come later when the group has bonded and has trust.”

After some initial chatting among friends, the group gets down to business reading the stories they’ve written since the last meeting. They take turns, devoting their full attention – and respect – to the reader.

“When you hear your own voice, and (know) that you’re being listened to, something magic happens,” DeLange said.

Sometimes, stories take unexpected turns.

“One time the topic was about travel – people were talking about their travels. One person told how her daughter had died the week before her wedding. … She needed to talk about that. Whatever you need to talk about or tell.”

DeLange, who has trained in group psychology, noted that the group is “not therapy, but can be very therapeutic.”

And through it all, participants learn about themselves and discover core truths. They gain confidence. They reconcile with their pasts and learn strategies for the present and future. Their lives grow in meaning. And, as they hear the unvarnished stories of the other members, they create lasting friendships.

“I love to see the transformation of these women,” DeLange said. “It’s amazing that we all have things that we need to tell. … I see them becoming alive and free – I really see that happening.”

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