Residents Leverage LifeBio to Tell Life Histories in Their Own Voice

Jim Braker was originally skeptical about making the eight-week commitment to LifeBio— a nationally recognized program developed to help older adults tell their life stories. That all changed when he began to hear more about the program and how it is specifically designed to make it easy for participants to pass their personal autobiography on to family members in a meaningful way.  “I cherish the little bit I know of my grandparents,” he explains. “I think having that slice of reflected life will be interesting for our grandchildren.”

The Brakers have indeed lived an interesting life—one that has seen them move about throughout the northeastern United States as well as across the Atlantic in Germany and Italy. Reverend James Braker gained a reputation for developing and leading loyal Baptist followings at the churches he served at while building strong ties to other faith organizations throughout the community. His wife Flo was with him every step of the way and her engaging personality is a perfect complement to Jim’s.

The Brakers were two of the eight St. John’s Meadows residents who recently completed LifeBio—a program that is offered exclusively at St. John’s here in the Rochester area. Because of their differing personalities, both Jim and Flo are approaching the telling of their stories in different ways. “I am focusing on the people who have influenced me in every place we’ve gone,” says Flo. “He is using specific events and accomplishments.”

One of the reasons LifeBio has been so successful at St. John’s is in part due to the program’s flexibility. “We have had people approach this in a number of different ways,” says Director of Social Recreation Deb Hammond. During the eight years that she has been co-leading the LifeBio program at St. John’s Meadows, Deb has seen residents choose to document their life by concentrating on such categories as their military service, travel experiences, the women in their life, and many more. Each individual is able to determine which method of storytelling is best for them, but LifeBio gives them the tools to proceed.

While the instructional part of LifeBio does last eight weeks, those who take part in the program are not likely to have finished their documented story in those two months. “By the end of eight weeks, they (participants) aren’t expected to have completed their projects,” says Deb. ”They are expected to have a plan outlined that is doable for them.” According to Deb, each participant will be completing their individual stories throughout the summer, with many of them recording an hour-long video describing their life to future generations of their family.   

On May 27, LifeBio participants from the spring program were asked to develop a small display to highlight their project and explain to guests at an end-of-class open house how they are proceeding with their work. This open house is a celebration of all that the participants have accomplished as well as a recruiting event. Over the years, several potential participants have decided to enroll in future LifeBio offerings after seeing what can be accomplished in just a few short weeks.

Esther Hammer is the other co-leader for the LifeBio group at St. John’s Meadows. Esther and her husband Paul were part of the first class to pilot the program in 2008 and she soon joined Deb to steer future groups. To date, over 125 St. John’s Meadows residents have completed LifeBio. Though Esther admits that having “something concrete to share with your children and grandchildren” is the most obvious benefit of joining LifeBio, she explains that for some, the friendships that are developed within each LifeBio cohort are just as meaningful. “You find seven new friends,” Esther explains. “For many people, they begin to feel more at home at the Meadows.”

Flo Braker agrees. “Our class really grew as friends throughout our time together,” she says. However, Flo suggests there is yet another benefit of the program. “Deb and Esther are wonderful leaders. They really complement each other.” Deb’s teaching experience and Esther’s background as a social worker helps provide a well-rounded support system for participants facing the daunting task of organizing the details of their entire lives. 

Like the Brakers, Paul and Esther Hammer both produced very different final products from their LifeBio experience. Esther’s portfolio includes a comprehensive family history and lineage that spans over 100 pages. Paul’s record is much shorter— and is presented using his unique gift of writing poetry. Esther believes that these individual outcomes are what help continue to generate interest in this unique program. “Our people come out (after completing LifeBio) so enthusiastic about it.  They’re our best marketing. They will all tell you that you’ll never have an experience quite like this.”  

St. John’s Meadows is the only community in the Rochester area currently offering the LifeBio program. If you are interested in participating, there are still openings for the fall class. Call Deb Hammond at (585) 242-7010.

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