It’s on every family’s “To Do” list, but never gets done . . . until now.

By Susan Saldibar

Jay Newton Small’s “aha” moment came out of the frustration of being asked to “Tell us about your loved one’s legacy” within seven cramped lines on a form; part of the assisted living admission process for her father. It was her desire to change that dynamic and find a better way to share stories that motivated Jay to the launch of Memory Well, an innovative program which uses a network of 400 professional journalists to create high-quality biographies of seniors.

Jay sat down with Steve Moran at the Boomer Venture Summit in Santa Clara, last July, for the Conversations video series about Memory Well and the challenge of capturing the life stories from the fading memories of aging seniors. Steve asked her why more families don’t take the time to do this themselves. “It’s something that’s on everyone’s ‘to do’ list; gather all the photos, interview mom or dad about their lives, put it all together,” Jay told Steve. “But time goes on and they find themselves putting it off, over and over again until it’s too late,” she explains. (I have to admit, I have yet to do this for my 92-year old mom.)

So how does the Memory Well program work in senior living communities?  

Senior living communities, according to Jay, love the program because, regardless of who pays for it, it gives them an added amenity for residents. The process is pretty straightforward. A family that wishes to have a story written is asked to contribute 5-10 photos of their loved one. They are then sent a set of 9 questions to get their thoughts organized. Then a journalist is assigned to conduct a 45-60 minute interview, usually over the phone. The result is a well-crafted 500-word biography, stored on the Memory Well website, which the family can link to and/or download and print off as a keepsake. Very cool idea. But it doesn’t stop there.  

The biography, more often than not, is just the beginning. “We’ve found families get excited and want to get more involved,” Jay explained to Steve. “We’ll hear things like, ‘Uncle Joe wants to add that story about the time they went ice fishing in Michigan,’” she said. That desire to expand the story has resulted in the creation of two versions; the 500-word, single biography or a living, collaborative biography; one which family members can access online and add to (you can see samples on their website).

A place for researchers to go to help them understand a generation.

It’s a great concept, and Jay is clearly passionate about her work. Her vision is to keep memories alive through stories and to help future generations better understand the lives of those before them. “I guess what I want to get across as a journalist, is that you and I live our lives digitally,” Jay explained, as they wrapped up the interview. “But this is a generation that does not have an enormous digital footprint. And I hate the idea of losing those stories,” she added.

There is much more in the video, with details on how Memory Well works. You can watch it below: