In 1998, a small group of colleagues, students, and friends of Jim Birren joined together to promote and expand Guided Autobiography. Jim Birren died January 15, 2016 at the age of 97 years. He remained actively engaged in teaching and GAB research up until the time of his death. GAB is a positive experience that continues to impact students worldwide. Personal connections are developed and maintained that are resistant to the eroding effects of time and distance. Students almost reverentially refer to this as the GAB magic!
Cheryl Svensson, MSG, Ph.D. — Director
Cheryl has been involved in the field of aging since the 1970s when she landed her first job out of college as a social work assistant in a convalescent hospital. That job motivated her to want to learn as much about aging as possible and she applied to the very first Masters in Gerontology program at USC where she first met Dr. Birren. After completing her master's, she moved to Sweden and entered the doctoral program in psychology with an emphasis on research in aging. In 1987 she created and taught a class for older adults in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at California State University Fullerton. The class is called Wisdom Exchange because of the reciprocity in information and exchange among all involved in the class. In the late 1990s, Cheryl reconnected with Dr. Jim Birren and enrolled in his Guided Autobiography course at UCLA. She has been a firm believer in the power of the GAB process and the potential to change lives ever since. Cheryl continued to work closely with Jim Birren and the Guided Autobiography work group to develop and expand the Autobiographical studies program. She has now trained more than 400 GAB instructors worldwide in a live, interactive online GAB training course.
James E. Birren, Ph.d. — Founding Director
James E. Birren is a legend in the field of aging. From the very beginning of his career in psychology, he focused on aging. In 1949 he attended the first Gerontological Society of America (GSA) meeting in New York. As Jim liked to quip, “The hotel where the first GSA meeting was held has been torn down, but I am still standing.” This remained true until January 15, 2016 when Jim Birren died in his home in Thousand Oaks, CA.
Throughout his long career, Jim has held positions as Chief, Section on Aging at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and head of the Division on Aging of the National Institute Child Health and Human Development, as well as founding the first graduate school of gerontology at the University of Southern California (USC) in 1975. Early in his career, Jim’s research had an experimental base and he studied cognitive change and aging. Jim Birren wrote the first book on the psychology of aging in 1964, The Psychology of Aging. His colleagues included the pioneers in aging, Nathan Shock, Jack Botwinick, Robert Butler, Bernice Neugarten, and others.
In the 1970s Jim’s interest and focus in aging changed from the measurable, scientific aspects of aging to the area of autobiographical studies and life stories. He created Guided Autobiography in the mid-70s and has written three books on this subject as well as conducted countless research projects to examine the impact of the process on participants. One might say he moved from the more measurable, scientific side of aging to the softer, less defined qualitative side. From there he continued to lead GAB groups, conduct research projects, write scientific articles, chapters and books all on the importance and value of writing and sharing life stories.
Jim Birren always said that listening to and participating in Guided Autobiography and life stories was the most significant thing he had done in his career. For this we are all grateful.
For even more information about Dr. Birren, visit his Wikipedia page.
More than 15 years ago, a group of colleagues and professionals interested in promoting Guided Autobiography, teamed up with Jim Birren. We met on a regular basis and developed new venues for Guided Autobiography, created new products, and researched the effects of the Guided Autobiography process. We called ourselves, The GAB Workgroup:
Pauline Abbott, Ph.D.
James Birren, Ph.D.
Betty Birren, M.A.
Barry Bortnick, Ph.D.
Thomas Collins, B.A.
Ron Erlandson, MDiv
Linda Grant, MSG, LCSW.
Helen Kerschner, Ph.D.
Robin Mintzer Davis, Ph.D.
Elyse Salend, MSW.
Philip Spradling, Ph.D., MSG
Cheryl Svensson, MSG, Ph.D.
Diana Taylor, Ph.D.