This probably doesn’t come as too much of a shock, but I absolutely love stories. One of my favorite things to do at my Grandma’s house is go through all of her old photo albums and journals and letters that stretch back as far as the Mayflower. Sometimes, though, there just isn’t information available. Who is that girl with the serious face? Which one was I named after? Why did they come to the US?
Beth Sanders created LifeBio to make sure that those stories are preserved for posterity and my great grandchildren aren’t left with the same questions I’ve been rolling around in my brain for years. LifeBio is a website that provides an easy-to-use template that assists older people in getting their life stories down on paper. Once they write an autobiography, customers can choose to keep their autobiography digital or order and receive a leather bound copy of their own life story.
Beth started the company in 2006 and has made a fascinating discovery since that time: LifeBio – and the practice of remembering in general – can help people with Alzheimer’s and dementia improve their cognitive functioning. What started out as way to get the older generation’s stories down on paper ended up being a form of alternative therapeutic treatment for people who are starting to feel their memories slip away from them.
This project is particularly poignant to me because my grandmother has been going through the agonizing descent that is Alzheimer’s Disease. I caught up with Beth to talk about LifeBio, the results she’s seen, and where they’re headed next.
What inspired you to start LifeBio?
I interviewed my grandma in 1993. My background is in English and journalism, so it was natural for me to be the one to be chosen to interview Grandma. I noticed that she was starting to be forgetful and that she was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, so it was a good time to get that done. After 90 minutes with Grandma, I realized that I had never seen her as a whole person until that day, even though I grew up across the street from her.
I never thought to ask the right questions, through many meals and many car rides together. I only saw her as Grandma and that day I saw her as a little girl, as a teenager, a college student, a young mom, [and] a great creative thinker who was an incredible teacher. I just appreciated her so much more and I thought, “How can I help other people have this experience that I’ve just had with my own Grandma?”
I had other ideas of how to do this, but when the web came along a few years later I thought, this really needs to be online.
I don’t want to just interview the rich and famous. I want to make sure that the everyday, ordinary, extraordinary people have a chance to tell their story.
It reminds me a little bit of StoryCorps, but obviously on a deeper level.
They’re probably the closest thing to a competitor that we have; we just do it in a different way!
We have an online template that instantly lets people create biographies. People can take a long time to create a bio or literally do it in 10 minutes, if they want to. We just put the power in their hands.
Sometimes it’s the person themselves doing it and sometimes it’s their family helping them out.
I think I’m going to send this to my mom to do with my grandpa this weekend. We Skyped yesterday and he’s just blown away by the technology.
What’s neat is that your mom could set up the account but you could access it too and you can both work on it with him. When you’re talking to him, you could ask questions like, “What was the greatest invention to come along in your lifetime? And why was it important to you?”
You and I may say, no doubt about it: computer, cellphone. Something like that. Older people will say, “asthma medicine.” “The washing machine.” is a very popular answer. “The television.” Their perspective is completely different. What really shocks me is the health pieces of this that they see as so important.
Speaking of health, did you think that LifeBio was going to have a medical application when you started it or were you really just focusing on recording stories?
I did know or think about the fact that it would have health implications when I started it. In the back of my mind I saw Grandma light up and change as I interviewed her that day, but I didn’t really realize the health benefits until I started researching that.
I noticed as I did interviews with people that they seemed happier. They seemed more engaged. This really validates who they are.
There’s a whole body of research around this. Dr. Robert Butler was a geriatrician who was one of the firsts in the 60s to say that reminiscing is a healthy part of normal aging, because it was kind of being poo-pooed. People thought it wasn’t a good idea, that older people should stay in reality, in the present. He was the first one to say, no, reminiscing is normal! As people age, that’s normal, so encourage it. Meeting him, he was like my rockstar, you know? He passed away in 2010.
Anyway, the whole idea of it impacting health: there have been probably at least a hundred studies over the past ten years that showed that reminiscence has the power to lower pain, to increase life satisfaction, to lower depression, to lower heart rate. We took that and we just started working with Iowa State University over the past year. They have a wonderful gerontology program.
Long story short, they’ve analyzed a retirement community there in Iowa that offers LifeBio in a class-like, group setting. They found that their cognitive function increased and it increased positive emotions over a period of time.
That’s the first step for us in being part of this research. The second step is working with a large health insurer who wants to extend that research and do more with it.
That’s very cool.
Yeah! And, MayoClinic was our first hospital client. They use it in their neurology area, where they have behavioral health things happening for people with early-stage and mid-stage Alzheimer’s and they use LifeBio as the approach to reminisce with people.
They like our questions. They like the way we ask our questions.
And how did you come up with those questions?
I thought about what I asked Grandma and I really thought seriously about what are the different stages of people’s lives. Our first version of LifeBio had over 250 questions about the life process, which is still inside LifeBio. Over time we’ve picked and chosen the questions that are really, really essential because, in senior health care you don’t have a lot of time.
My big mistake at the beginning was giving people almost too many questions, too much to do so, over time, we’ve simplified the LifeBio process.
I also saw bad questions being asked out there and made sure we didn’t fall into those pitfalls.
What would constitute a bad question?
Um… Did your father hug you enough as a child? That’s a therapy question. This is not therapy, although it is therapeutic. We’re not leading the witness down a bad path.
Our question is, “Describe your father to someone who has never met him.” You can say whatever you want in response to that and I didn’t tell you to go negative. Our questions are asked in a positive or neutral way.
And they’re not weird. It’s funny and cool, but sometimes templates will say something like, “What kind of milkshake do you like?” Okay, that’s cool but, again, your grandpa is 92 years old. You want to ask the essentials. We try to ask good questions that are open ended and make it easy and are really relevant to a wide swath of people.
Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about the tech element. It sounds like you don’t have a background in technology. Did you build a team to help you or was it just you and your computer?
Well, I actually come from an IT background. I did IT sales for 15 years and now, I guess, 20 because we’ve been doing this for five years and I guess it’s technology sales as well. We also have an amazing team that is focused on sales and supporting the customers we already have.
Can you talk a little more about that instant process?
That’s our secret sauce. All people have to do is finish the sentence or answer the question and LifeBio is instantly ready to print, ready to share document about that person.
It’s not just a photo book, even. When you do a photo book you have to lay out, okay, this element and that element. This instantly creates a ready to print document and then they can even publish it. You can get a leather bound edition of the book at the end of the process, just by pushing a button.
When you’re designing something that’s for primarily an older market, you have to make sure it’s super user friendly. And if you’re designing it for that generation, great, because other generations are also going to see it and realize it’s easy to do.
It definitely crosses generations. We have 80 year olds using LifeBio.com and then we have their adult children and/or their grandchildren online too. I think that’s one thing that’s pretty unique about us: we’ve made it relevant for older people to have a really great reason to be online.
Well Beth, I love what you’re doing and am looking forward to seeing where LifeBio goes next!
Courtesy of Beth Sanders and LifeBio.com