This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime Time senior living section.
An 11-year-old girl huddles with schoolmates in a bunker in wartime Bremen, Germany. Air raid sirens blare, and bombs explode around them. After the drone of the airplanes recedes into the distance, she emerges to find her school a pile of rubble.
She lives through this ordeal five times between 1939 and the end of World War II. Later, she takes a train to her new school, but the trains unexpectedly stop running and she must walk three hours to get back home.
These events read like a scene from a Steven Spielberg epic, but are actually from a chapter in an “ordinary” local senior’s autobiography. Anneliese Schlottmann is not famous, but she lived through an extraordinary time.
Today, as a resident of Oak Trace, a retirement community in Downers Grove, she is capturing her memories for posterity via LifeBio, an online program that allows everyday folks to write their life stories.
“My children grew up hearing those stories, and I thought they might like to have them on paper,” Schlottmann says.
Schlottmann and her husband, Gerhard, grew up together and survived hard times in Germany. They immigrated in 1965 and lived in Downers Grove for the next 50 years. They had a son and a daughter, who became a teacher like her mother.
Anneliese earned a living by teaching German in the Berlitz language school for 25 years. Gerhard passed away in 2012 and Anneliese moved into Oak Trace.
Schlottmann loved teaching German, but now that she is working on her autobiography on the computer, she regrets never learning how to type properly, she says.
She’s worked on her book about an hour a week for the past year. “I’m in no hurry. I take my time,” she says. “Some dates I had to look for and call family in Germany to help me out.”
Before printing out the final product, she plans to have her daughter assist her in adding pictures of her home and family in Germany and America.
LifeBio is doing for Schlottmann and her family exactly what it was designed to do, says President Beth Sanders. Sanders launched the product in 2006, prompted by a desire to capture her own grandmother’s memories.
“She had diabetes and dementia, so I was concerned that if we didn’t get (her memories recorded), it would be lost,” Sanders says.
The LifeBio program leads users through questions designed to capture their fond memories, family members’ names, important dates, places they visited, standout experiences, preferences and opinions — and then turn those into a book. There are long templates that take about three to six months to complete, and shorter templates with only 20 questions that can be done in 30 minutes, Sanders says. Users can even order a leather-bound book when complete.
LifeBio is not the only autobiography software out there, but it is the only one tailored to seniors. It is offered in 400 senior communities across the country.
The program has been popular at Oak Trace, says Susan Collins, life enrichment coordinator. Collins works with residents in the computer lab one hour a week and estimates that about 20-30 current residents have participated.
She likes the program’s flexibility. “They can gear it to their own needs,” Collins says.” “For example, they can do an online journal entry every day. One gentleman did a little booklet about products he developed for Sears throughout his lifetime. He was thrilled. He gave it to all his relatives.”
If residents are not computer literate, there is a printed book of questions they can write in.
LifeBio also has a great tool for memory care called About Me, Sanders says.
The About Me biography is a snapshot of a person’s history and interests, often created together by the family and the resident. It can be used by staff and others to make meaningful connections to the person to better serve their needs.
Collins adds that having a resident’s history written down on paper is a good reminder for them, too. “They can fall back on it and utilize it,” she says.
You don’t have to be a lucky senior housing resident to use LifeBio. Anyone can pay $7.99 a month, $79 a year or $200 for a lifetime membership at lifebio.com. If you choose to share your login with family members, they can add their own stories, photos, and video.
“Now, an autobiography isn’t just something just the rich and famous do,” Sanders says. “Every person deserves one.”