Living Portraits Guided Video Autobiography
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Luepker's Living Portraits was hailed by The Grinnell College Magazine as an innovative business.

See The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2007,"The Innovators:"

"This Is Your Life"
By Erin Peterson

When Ebenezer Scrooge tossed and turned his way through an evening full of nightmares in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, he was having more than just a rough night ‹ he was undergoing a life review, says Ellen Luepker '64. By examining the events of his earlier life through older, wiser eyes, he began to understand who he was ‹ and how he might still change.

Most of us won't have such perfectly-sequenced, epiphany-revealing dreams, but Luepker, the founder of Living Portraits, believes that the life review process is for more than just characters in novels. "[A life review] is for many people ‹ people who may be terminally ill, or people in their 70s or 80s ‹ or even their 40s or 50s," she says. "A life review can create coherence and purpose in people's lives. They become clearer about who they are, and it can enhance the sense of meaning in their own lives."

Since 1995, Luepker has been creating video life reviews through Living Portraits. She works with individuals and their families to capture the highlights of a person's life through thoughtful questions that get to the heart of how they've lived their lives.

The process from start to finish is remarkably thorough: once a life review is requested (often by family members of a particular individual), Luepker meets with the subject of the life review, then collects questions from family members. After organizing the questions chronologically, she meets with the individual for two or three two-hour sessions and goes through the questions, videotaping the entire process. From there, the video is edited, organized, and put on a DVD. In all, the process can take up to 60 hours to complete. "People find this to be an extremely pleasurable experience," she says. "It's not therapy, but it's a therapeutic experience."

The therapeutic aspect of the work is part of the reason she got into the business in the first place. Luepker, who has done psychotherapy and counseling work for decades, says she was inspired to start Living Portraits after she learned about a graduate school mentor who had done life histories for older women in Japan. "I was fascinated by the process," she says. "People need to review their lives and make meaning out of them." Her training in psychotherapy gave her the skills to do loosely structured interviews that guide ‹ but don't intrude on ‹ a given train of thought.

While life reviews are similar to the more commonly known oral histories, there are key differences. Unlike oral histories, which tend to focus on particular groups of people ‹ nurses in World War II or survivors of the Holocaust ‹ life reviews focus on individuals. They also don't limit the discussion only to a particular segment of a person's life.

She says the visual aspect of these life reviews are also unique. "With video, people can remember the body language of those who are no longer with them."

While Luepker's Living Portraits work represents only a portion of her income (she also continues her therapy work, supervises training for psychiatry residents, and has authored books on counseling), she finds the work finds deeply satisfying. Last year, she had a dozen clients, and as the baby boomer population ages, she'll have a growing audience for her work. And someday, she may even turn the camera on herself.

"I think that I would welcome the opportunity to do a life review," she says. "I'd love to have my own children asking the questions."

More

"Every forty-year-old should do this…"

P.M., Eagan, MN

"Because of their health problems, I knew it wouldn’t be easy to make my parents comfortable, but you did. They enjoyed their interviews with you… it was wonderful."

H.G., Medicine Lake, MN

"When our cousins from Philadelphia came for my Dad’s service, we sat around and looked at the tape. They hadn’t seen my Dad in quite a while and really appreciated it… thanks!"

S.L., St. Paul, MN

 

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