In a life that is approaching its end you can have a hidden desire to tell your story, for yourself and for others. For this reason the Order of Malta’s volunteers in Victoria, Australia, have launched an apparently simple initiative, the Biography Program. “We just sit down and listen,” says Tanya, one of the numerous volunteers who for many years has been visiting the homes of people arriving at the last years of their life and asking them to tell their story so it can be turned into a biography.
Recounting one’s life has a powerful therapeutic effect, bringing back moments of joy, of success, of pain and helping people to realise how rich and full of events their lives have been. And it can serve also to reassess and give the right weight to the final stage, that of disease or old age. For many participants in this programme, their biography also becomes an instrument to transmit messages to the family, to give advice, to remember episodes and to hand down traditions. All this can help people to accept imminent death with greater serenity.
The reassuring effect is not only limited to the protagonist. The biographies also help families and friends to deal with bereavement: they are a way to maintain a bond, to feel the presence of those who have left this world, to smile while remembering them.
The volunteers devote a lot of time and effort to this programme: they make numerous visits to the house of the person assisted, listening to their stories, recording them, transcribing them, going over them together. Sometimes they also collect other material to embellish the story such as photos, songs and poems. A least ten meetings are necessary to collect a story. And the biographies published to date range from 3 to 170 pages.
Awarded a prize by the Australian minister of health, the programme, launched in 1992, now has 94 volunteers. At October 2018, around a thousand biographies had been published.