Doreen AbiRaad sees untold stories in aging faces.

Etched in the lines on a grandmother's cheeks, she sees tales of a generation that endured several wars, a severe depression and strict segregation, stories that could help younger generations cope with hardships.

Chiseled in a grandfather's brow she sees experiences of a lifetime, joyous and painful, that might help his kin discover their heritage or at least understand him better.

If only the elderly would write their stories.

"It's important to look back and see what you accomplished, for your own self-esteem and for sharing with your families," AbiRaad recently told a group of residents at Regency House, a high-rise apartment complex for senior citizens in upper Northwest Washington.

A journalist by training, AbiRaad embraced this perspective two years ago after she recorded the personal anecdotes of an elderly friend, culled from long conversations while AbiRaad was a volunteer at a retirement home.

AbiRaad structured the life story so it read like an engaging novel, then had it bound in leather and gave the volume to her friend.

That experience spawned an entrepreneurial enterprise she calls Once Upon a Time Memoirs, a year-old writing service for people who want to turn their life histories into a bound edition.

She also offers occasional free workshops to help people get started on their own stories. "The life review and reminiscing is a very important part of aging," she said. "Retelling the experiences helps them see their achievements."

But the value of the retelling is diminished if the only ears are companions of a similar age or a son or daughter who tunes out the details because they think they've heard it all before. Later, when their own lives slow down or when the grandchildren ask questions, adult children may wish they could remember the stories. But often, it is too late.

Which is AbiRaad's argument for documention.

"I think I am reviving a lost art," she said. "Future generations need to get a sense of history, not just from {school} books, but from family roots and ancestors."

To open the story warehouse, jog the memories of older people or loosen shy tongues, AbiRaad encourages them just to try to remember their childhood. "What was it like when you were a child?" she asks the group at Regency House.

"We lived way down in Southeast," piped Anna Swanson, 84, "way down near the Navy Yard. We called it the gun factory . . . on New Jersey Avenue, and we walked to school on H Street. After school, four of us sisters played together. Jump rope. Ball. Jacks. Hide-and-seek. You could play in the street."

"A nice start," AbiRaad said. "What did you do on weekends?"

"A movie cost 15 cents. We went to the matinee, and Saturday night we took a bath for church the next morning," said Nettie Wallace Jones, age 70.

"My big play thing was making doll clothes," said Maggie Magazine, age 101.

"I didn't have no family," piped a voice in the back of the room.

Indeed, the life review process can touch nerves, recall pain and revive family feuds, AbiRaad said. "Everyone has good and bad experiences in their life, but by talking about the traumatic or unpleasant, even painful events, it helps come to terms with those experiences."

Not that all or any of this must be included in a life history.

"If someone doesn't want a bad event in their book, it's out, but I encourage them to talk. It will be more meaningful to future generations if all the colors of a life are involved, not just the rosy areas," AbiRaad said. "By sharing these experiences, the younger generation can learn how they got through life."

AbiRaad said the process takes her several weeks of interviews. Typing and binding takes another month for a package that can cost as much as $1,600.

She said it is easier for someone outside the family to do the interviewing because there is less emotion invested in the answers and more neutral feelings associated with the characters.

But it can be done by a family member willing to give some time generously to listening. Some families simply tape the stories. Other older people prefer putting their memories on paper themselves.

What matters is that it gets done, AbiRaad said. "Families don't get together as often as they used to, and when they do, it is usually only for short visits that don't permit lengthy reminiscing."

Her grandfather died a few years ago, and she said she often regrets that she didn't ask him many questions about himself.

"I would have liked to ask him how he kept his temper down . . . . How he found his job, got into his career. What he felt when my mother was born . . . . What was it like for him? His first job, his first school, his first love."

She knows other people feel the same after losing a close relative, and such thoughts engender a commitment to her work that she has never felt in other jobs, she said.

"I can't picture myself doing anything else. I believe older people have so much to share and we can learn from them. They deserve the opportunity to be heard," she said.