In high school, Judy Lavallee always wanted to write about her life — but never did. As an adult, she started composing stories about her youth — but never finished.

Now, with the help of a “guided autobiography” program led by Cathedral Square staff member Donna Gacetta, Judy has recorded on paper some of her most important personal history.

Judy, 78, a resident at Cathedral Square’s Town Meadow property in Essex Junction, learned and remembered a lot about herself during the program — so did her children. “My kids read about some of the things I did. They said, ‘Mom, really? That happened to you?’ It was a wonderful bringing-you-out-of-yourself thing,” she says.

Bringing people out of themselves and getting their memories on paper is the focus of the program. Donna offers the free, eight-week program at a couple of Cathedral Square residences a year and plans to cover all 30 Cathedral Square sites eventually.

“If people don’t write their stories down, they’re gone,” Donna says. “I want to help people to tell their stories in their own words and leave them for their families.”

Donna knows how it is to have no recorded family history. She shows each group a photo of her late father’s family. He had nine siblings, all deceased now. “We don’t have any of their stories. I wish we did,” she says.

The guided-autobiography program, known by the acronym GAB, was developed in the 1970s by the late James Birren, founding dean of the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology. Donna and other instructors are trained to lead people through prompts to record memories about such topics as health, money, spirituality and death.

Participants in Donna’s sessions write a two-page story at home about an assigned theme each week, then meet and read it aloud to the group.They respond to what is read but don’t critique, and confidentiality is stressed.

GAB proponents say the program can increase self-acceptance and acceptance of others, reduce anxiety and foster connections among participants. The program provided those benefits for Judy.

“It was good to get to know other people and what their lives are about. You look at people differently. Maybe they’re not the person you thought they were. Maybe they’ve had some problems. It brought us closer together,” Judy says.

“It also helped us to look back into our lives and pull things out,” she adds. “Some memories made me smile while I was writing about them. Some made me cry. It was a gamut of emotions.”

Participant Stewart McHenry experienced a gamut of emotions, too. Stewart, 81, a resident at Cathedral Square Senior Living in Burlington, wrote about his first job delivering newspapers in Chicago and his polio experience, among other memories.

Stewart recalled being in a hospital ward with other children with polio. “You could never see your parents. You were isolated and in constant fear because everyone else was terrified and in massive pain. It was a nightmare,” the retired college professor says.

“I never expected to get so deep so quickly,” Stewart notes. “I had never thought about what it was like to be sick in a hospital and not see my parents.”

GAB inspired him to continue to write. “The class was fabulous,” he says. “Donna was an excellent leader.”

Donna’s leadership made it comfortable for participants to share their writings with the group. “She was always positive, and this encouraged all who were participating,” says Nancy Tracy, a resident at Grand Way Commons, a Cathedral Square residence in South Burlington.

“I’ve never done journal writings, so I wasn’t sure how much I could or would write about me,” Nancy says. “But each week we were given assignments that made it quite easy and enjoyable.”

Through GAB, some people realize their lives were closer to perfect than they’d thought. “People discover that their lives were more than worthwhile, that their accomplishments were truly accomplishments,” Donna says.  “It’s one of the many benefits of the program – helping people feel good about themselves.”

By Jessica Clarke