By Sarah White
An email recently popped into my in-box that reminded me of one of the oddest—and most entertaining—freelance writing assignments I’ve ever taken on. That email was about a reminiscence tool that you might consider for yourself or a loved one. I had doubts back then but today, I’m a fan.
The email began:
“A few years ago, you were one of the very first users of LifeMapping, an interactive mapping application that lets you literally map the story of your life, story by story, event by event. Thank you for your early support…”
It was sent by Dean Olsen, founder of a tech start-up that has built an app that creates an online autobiography for an individual. It went on to say, “I’m delighted to announce that, after much work, we are launching LifeMapping to the paying public.”
My assignment back in 2017 had been to craft one thousand prompting questions for the app.
I’m generally skeptical of apps for reminiscing; IMHO it is an activity best pursued by two live people interacting in real time, or a writer engaged in thoughtful reflection at a keyboard or page. But the money was good and Dean’s enthusiasm was (and still is) infectious. I wrote about 850 questions before my well ran dry. Working with Dean and his team back then was a pleasure. I lost touch with Dean and LifeMapping for a while. Then, his email arrived.
“Rediscover the events and experiences that made you who you are”
Dean’s flash of insight that led to the app is simple: “Everything happens somewhere, so why don’t we use time and space to organize our stories?” The LifeMapping app combines prompting questions, a simple user interface, and a digital map layer to create private online maps. Users create a LifeMap that holds stories, photos, and/or sound files, each tied to a date on a timeline and specific map coordinates. The app is designed so that each individual’s LifeMap can be shared with family and friends.
The truth of Dean’s insight became clear to me during the last months of my mother’s life. It was the first summer of COVID, and we were constrained to meeting outside her assisted living facility. With nothing to do, I tried to interest her in reminiscing. But she didn’t respond well to my random questions; at 97, they didn’t get her memories flowing. Then I discovered that she responded excitedly to Google Maps. I started using her iPad to take her to the address of her childhood home in Huntington, Indiana. Then we would “walk away” from her front door in different directions. Her memories spilled out about people, places, events… soon I was switching on my iPhone’s Voice Messages app to capture her recollections. If I’d thought of using LifeMapping then, I would have done so. Using a map as a prompt made all the difference.
For now: best used on a laptop; in the future, a convenient mobile app
From that first flash of insight, Dean has pursued his app development with a relentless energy that led to significant startup funding (which is how I got paid to draft those prompting questions). Since then, perseverance has been the name of Dean’s long game. He works a “day job”; he invests what he can in development; he reaches milestones like the one that triggered his recent email. It continued, “Over the past few years, we’ve been doing steady work on LifeMapping. Come visit us at lifemapping.co to see what we’ve done.”
When I reached out to Dean after receiving the email, he told me, “I’m hearing nice stuff. Folks are saying ‘this is just the tool I was hoping for. It is easy for me to use, it’s easy for my father, and he’s really enjoying it.’”
This brings to light why a reminiscence app can be as good as two live people interacting in real time. Dean told me, “So far, it’s been pretty successful at promoting interactions. Someone said to me last week that her grandmother had started a LifeMap. As the family was driving up to visit her, the parents told the children, ‘I want you to pull up Grandma’s map and think about a few of the stories you would like to hear more about.’ And the person told me, it actually worked!”
“Most of the development work has been making sure that the time and effort people put into using the app is honored; that their memories are preserved and safe,” Dean told me. He is adamant about the absolute privacy of users’ content in the app; therefore he’s chosen not to accept money from investors or advertisers who might logically expect to harvest user data. The site does not accept advertising or links to outside sites.
Dean acknowledges that the app interface in its current iteration is still clunky on mobile devices. “Please let folks know we are in continuous improvement. It’s just that, in order for us to remain ad-free, we need to finance our work by subscription fees.”
Dean would be delighted to see you register for an account and give LifeMapping a try. A free 14-day trial starts when you sign up; a subscription costs $7.95/month if you choose to continue after the trial period. Gifting a subscription to an older family member is a popular option. Consider giving it a shot, and sending Dean an email to let him know about your experience!
© 2022 Sarah White