Finding Stories

By Perlstein, Susan | Aging Today, November/December 2002 | Go to article overview

Finding Stories


Perlstein, Susan, Aging Today


Spring 2002: Living History Theater Group, at the Penn South Senior Center in New York City, is meeting for its second session. The group sits in a circle. Each member contributes a line to a group poem, "Honoring Our Insights." One participant, Sadie, says, "I don't have much to say, really." She pauses. Other participants listen with quiet intent. Sadie continues, "I do remember when my mother's sense of humor first caught my attention. I said to her, `Ma, I never knew you were funny!'My mom answered, `With six children, who had the time?"' The group laughs.

By its 10th session, the theater group is ready to present scenes from "Honoring Our Insights" to friends, relatives and members of the community. After the performance, Sadie's daughter is amazed. She says, "Mom, I never knew you were so funny!"

Professionals in aging can elicit artistic expression from older people in many art mediums, but the raw material must come from what is meaningful in people's lives, and that requires uncovering their stories. At Elders Share the Arts (ESTA) in New York City, we use a 3o-week process to uncover the stories of participants in our Living History Theater residencies. Over that period, elders share their memories and transform them into a play based on their collective accounts.

During the first to weeks; participants develop trust and build performance skills through improvisational theater, movement or writing exercises. In the second io weeks, oral history and story-- telling techniques help evoke participants' memories. Participants devote the final to weeks to choosing a theme and rehearsing the community performances. The benefits that keep people committed to the project for more than a half year go beyond applause. Year after year, I've seen older adults find new friends, learn new skills and discovered hidden talents.

PLAYFULNESS AND TRUST

For the process to work, it is essential to create an informal atmosphere of playfulness and trust-to give elders a safe place to explore memories and the feelings they arouse. When a supportive group process develops, participants begin to lose their inhibitions and selfconsciousness. As those involved become more expressive, their confidence, self-esteem and sense of empowerment increase.

Shy people require specific attention. It's usually easy to pinpoint reticent, timid or suspicious individuals: They will not readily participate. As facilitators, we encourage participation either nonverbally, with a look or smile, or vocally, such as by asking, "What do you think about that story? Does that story remind you of something that happened to you?" In one group, for example, a quiet participant spent months listening. One day, her stories in hand, she announced she was ready to join in and went on to be a brilliant contributor and performer. She had only needed time to see if she felt comfortable in the group.

Sometimes a group member resists by testing the process. Especially in the beginning, such a participant may arrive late, interrupt frequently or dominate the group with too many questions. For the latecomer, the most effective response is for the facilitator to acknowledge the person's presence without straying from the agenda. I have often asked latecomers to sit and observe until they understand what is happening. When they are ready, they join in. To manage disruptive behavior, it is important for session leaders to set up group rules: The key is an atmosphere of mutual respect in which one person talks while others listen. This rule establishes a standard that participants can use to remind the disrupter of what is appropriate group behavior.

Another common form of resistance is the no-show. One effective intervention is establishing a buddy system, in which a participant who cannot attend simply needs to ask his or her buddy to report the absence. Most absences happen because of a doctor's appointment, an illness or a visit from a child or grandchild. …

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