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In personal histories as in almost everything else, technology has transformed the landscape, making life stories easier to preserve for future generations in formats that are vastly more creative. While some personal historians turn out spiral-bound word-for-word transcripts, others, like Richard Rosing, owner of Telestory in Nashville, Tenn., offer accounts on DVD, VHS or CD-ROM that not only cost upward of $15,000 but also rival an episode of TV's Biography in production values. "I add mementos, photos and music and try to show not only the life but the time in which it was lived," says Rosing, a former multimedia producer. "I also try to lead the project so it goes beyond the details of the person's life to what the life was about--because that's the real legacy. A life story is hardly ever about just one person; it's about that person in the context of the whole family history."
One of Rosing's subjects who zeroed in on what he saw as his real legacy was Jack Segal, 84, of Tarzana, Calif. Segal, who was a prominent songwriter in the mid-century decades (anybody remember 1949's Scarlet Ribbons or 1957's When Sunny Gets Blue?), singled out as his most profound experience his return, late in life, to a belief in a higher power. "It was important for my kids and grandkids to understand that after almost 60 years as an agnostic, I had to acknowledge that my musical ability was a God-given gift," he says. "God had given me talent as well as a mother who nurtured that talent. I wanted my family to remember why I now embrace God with all my heart."
It's a human need to want to leave something behind--experiences, values, feelings that may not have been fully expressed. But a concrete legacy is only one of the benefits of creating a personal history. Experts agree that reviewing and assessing one's life also has emotional and physical benefits. "Research has shown that the act of telling your life story increases self-esteem, reduces depression, alleviates loneliness and helps people deal with grief and loss," says John Kunz, manager of the International Institute for Reminiscing and Life Review at the University of Wisconsin--Superior. Kunz's institute, whose members include psychologists, gerontologists, therapists and social workers, is devoted to research and education about the value to older adults of the examined life.
At the University of Texas, psychology professor James Pennebaker conducted a study showing that writing or talking about life experiences--particularly emotional ones--can lower one's blood pressure and contribute to a stronger immune system. Pennebaker also found a significant drop in doctors' visits by participants in the study after they wrote about emotionally charged experiences.