The healing power of being ‘seen whole’

This is one of those stories that feels like a hug. Truly.

Graham Newton-Small lived an adventurous life as a United Nations diplomat who served on three continents. But by the time his daughter Jay moved him into an assisted living facility, he was often unable to remember or tell much of that life story.

Asked to fill out a long and detailed questionnaire about his life, Jay chose a different approach. She typed up his story on one page for his caregivers and pasted it on the wall. And that transformed his care, she says. 

He had lived in Ethiopia for several years and two of his caregivers were Ethiopian. They wanted to hear all about his encounters with emperor Haile Selassie. “They became his champions,” she say. “They would sit with him for hours and ask him what it was like back then, and even though my dad didn’t remember what happened last week or last month, he still remembered what he had done in his twenties.”

MemoryWell on YouTube Jul. 27, 2021

So many families approached her about doing the same for their family members that in 2017, she founded MemoryWell, a platform that allows patients and their families to create short life stories with the help of professional writers. Families can contribute by uploading photos and memories. The initiative has received several noteworthy awards, including the Not Impossible Healthcare Breakthrough Award in 2021.

MemoryWell has produced about 1,500 life stories since its start and currently contracts with more than 1,000 freelancers. Most stories run 500 to 700 words.

The stories not only help staff see people fully, but they also can help solve problems that staff may not have realized.

One of the first stories was about a retired accountant in an assisted living facility in Iowa. Three times a day, when a chow bell rang to let people know that food was ready, he accosted people and the staff was at their wit’s end to know how to deal with him. “Through my writing his life story, they realized he had been a lifelong volunteer firefighter,” said Jay. “The bell sounded like the bell in the firehouse and he was trying to evacuate people. They changed the bell to a chime and he was totally fine.” 

Michaela Haas, who wrote the wonderful story for Reasons to be Cheerful and writes a Substack called Healthy Solutions, says it was a story that was deeply personal to her. Her mother-in-law, who suffers from dementia, reduced sight, and little facial expression, lives in assisted care. She and her siblings feed her lunch and dinner daily, Michaela says, but the rest of the time, she is cared for by staff who may not know her. 

“So when we tell her caregivers about her courageous life, a single mother of three who managed to overcome all kinds of hardship, we often see their demeanor change. We find they can relate to her much better and spend more time with her, talking to her like a person and not just another bedridden number to clean. They are shocked to look at the artwork around her room and learn that she is the talented artist who painted the cheerful watercolor landscapes.”


The Power of Sharing Patients’ Life Stories With Caregivers Reasons to be Cheerful, Oct. 20, 2023

The Impact of Sharing a Life Story Healthy Solutions with Michaela Haas. Nov. 3, 2023

MemoryWell blog.

MemoryWell & Caregivers. YouTube, Jul. 27, 2021

Cover image: Sofia Shultz, Pexels