World Alzheimer’s Month: writing memoir to help others

CalmerWatersCoverDuring September, World Alzheimer’s Month, I read Barbra Cohn’s memoir/self-help book, Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Barbra cared for her husband who had early-onset Alzheimer’s and wrote the story of their journey as part of a reference book to help others walking that path. I would have liked to have read this book while I was caring for my mother on her Alzheimer’s journey. There is so much more I could have done to comfort us both.

I have read a number of books on Alzheimer’s caregiving, both memoirs and self-help books. Barbra came at this from a different perpective. She is practiced in various spiritual healing methods and has a background in health and nutrition, so Calmer Waters is a book for “care partners”—both caregiver and Alzheimer’s patient—to give ways to be healthy, to try to rise above, and to de-stress both the body and situations.

In Calmer Waters, Barbra mixes in the story of her husband’s care journey with words of wisdom, ways of soothing, and healing therapies based on spiritual philosophy. She includes other caregivers’ stories and their tips for coping and for soothing their care partners. This is whole body, non-drug therapy and philosophy and can easily be combined with religious beliefs. The final section includes articles written by teachers and facilitators of various healing techniques, such as aromatherapy, massage, music and art and water therapy, and so much more. Even a few things I’ve never heard of before. This is a jam-packed book of resources for people open to holistic methods of calming the body and emotions. Pick what sounds good for you as caregiver and for the person with dementia at whatever stage they are in.

I think self-help and nonfiction guides are best when they include life stories, to help the reader understand and to feel the comfort of shared experience. A great many people write their memoirs because they think it will help others in similar situations. As Barbra did, it also helps to include resources—your own learned wisdom and perhaps that of others, and lists of outside resources such as websites, books, or organizations. Even my Poems That Come to Mind book of short poems about the Alzheimer’s experience has some resources listed in the back.

I love Barbra’s reason for writing Calmer Waters. She hopes the book can “make the Alzheimer’s journey less painful and transform it into a profound spiritual experience.” Amen. I experienced some exquisite moments with my mother, and if you are a caregiver, I hope you can find such moments, too. Calmer Waters can help.

Barbra Cohn writes The Healthy Caregiving Blog.

PS: Similar to The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, my mother loved when I read to her from her own memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. If it is not too late, write down stories!

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Learning empathy through stories

St. Louis is boiling over with anger again. After Ferguson and Michael Brown, there is Jason Stockley and Anthony Lamar Smith. Or rather, Anthony Smith was . . . Our black people here–and all across the nation–are fed up and angry that their stories are being ignored. Michael Brown and Anthony Smith are not exactly the best poster-men for this–they are not “babies” who were “murdered” for no reason by “those racist police”–those are some of the emotionally-charged words people have used. But, their stories are symptoms of a way bigger story going on, and we are so slow to change that story.

The reason a bad story is slow to change is likely because it is not the story of the majority of people in power–in this case, meaning that in the U.S. it is not a white people’s story. Not even a poor white people’s story. And so the majority finds it easy to ignore that story and even to make surface judgments that “those people” deserve what they get, that it’s their fault they have that story. When it is not your story, it is easy to make judgments based only on the first sentence, skipping the middle due to lack of interest and dismissing the summary ending as “garbage.” I like to learn the whole stories.

I read memoirs to learn about others’ lives. To step into their shoes and experience their environment, what they felt, why they did what they did. Taking the time to learn in depth about others teaches empathy and understanding. Our political leaders ought to read memoirs of everyday people, especially of people who are struggling. If you are angry at protesters, you should listen to their stories–the entire stories. Our particular protesters in St. Louis have many reasons to be angry and fed up, and our police have good reasons to be nervous around black men in crime-ridden neighborhoods, as in our country full of guns they have reason to be nervous at any traffic stop. There is an intersection of these stories nobody is seeing as everyone is too busy shouting at each other about the “garbage” last lines.

So I have signed up to do my part to address part of this bigger story. My church is making this easy for me. Yes, not all Christians and churches are bad! I will join others at an after-school program at our church to tutor youngsters from the struggling black neighborhood in our town. After a terrible tragedy, our police and townspeople began to listen to the stories from this neighborhood and have since been trying to build bridges, to build stories of hope and togetherness.

Let’s not shut people out. Listen to their stories, and then be the change you want to see.


Posted in multicultural, overcoming, relationship | Tagged , | 4 Comments

What to do with old diaries (and letters)

When my dad opened an old trunk, he found two diaries his mother had kept from the years 1935 and 1936. At first glance they seemed to be all about the weather, not surprising for a farming man’s wife when survival depended on weather. Those were the days before we thought it was okay to spill all our thoughts into highly personal and private diaries and journals. People were generally more reserved then. When I sat down to read through them, beyond the weather details came a glimpse into a young mother’s life during the Depression years – quite fascinating to me. I found a three-dimensional grandmother, one I never really knew as a child, one who died when I was a young woman away at college.

The family history book I am working on was about done then, but I wanted to incorporate these diaries. Remembering how I did the book of my husband’s grandfather’s WWII letters home, I knew I had to do some serious culling. I ended up with 16 full pages of my summary statements interspersed with pertinent diary entries, often with the weather edited out, sometimes other unimportant details, too. Still, 16 pages to add to the book already full of stories? I emailed them to my sister to see what she thought.

My sister can be bluntly honest—a good trait for a beta reader. (A beta reader is someone who will tell you what she thinks about your work – for free – before you pay an editor and so you don’t publish and embarrass yourself). She said, “I think it’s too long.” Thank you! This gave me freedom to cull more entries out, leaving just the most interesting or most representative. No need to repeat points via multiple diary entries, just add details to my summary paragraphs as needed. Summary paragraphs are easier reading than a bunch of diary entries or letters. Below is a short (and edited) example showing how to handle the left out bits (the more boring parts) and include side comments.

Times were hard during the Depression. Sometimes Pete did not have work or he could not do farm work due to weather. Sometimes he would not get paid and had to go calling later to ask for his money.

Tuesday, March 26: . . . We washed this morning and it dried swell. . . . Chris and the kids and I walked to town this P.M. Pete is around the house every day yet, no work. . . .

Saturday, June 29: . . . Baked quite a lot after we came home. Pete sold all the beets but only got 1 1/2 cents for the last 200. The rest 650 for 2 cents [probably each, but packed by box or bushel].


Note that if you are leaving things out following a complete sentence, use the sentence-ending period followed by the ellipsis . . . so you end up with four dots, as in the first diary entry above.

You may want to include a photo of the diary cover or of the stack of letters as well as a photo of original handwriting. Putting every bit of every letter or diary entry into a book can make for a long, boring read for anyone who is not interested in minute details. You want your family to finish reading your book, not fall asleep.


Posted in journal, letters, lifewriting | Tagged | 2 Comments