The Power of Story Can Unite Us across Culture, Age and Disability

Article excerpt

Stories tell us who we are, and enable us to pass on our values and social rules. In the 1960s, Dr. Robert Butler first raised the importance of "storying" in later life through reminiscence. Since then, research and practice in narrative have grown, and are now embraced in narrative gerontology: the aging services sector recognizes how fictional and nonfictional stories can deepen mutual understanding across age, culture and ability.

It is crucial to acknowledge the complexity of storytelling and consider the multiple people and roles involved in stories: tellers, listeners and keepers, or those who collect and preserve stories. Although the push for measurable research is compelling, stories should be appreciated for the joy and meaning they bring, apart from the benefits cited in clinical and social science research. Stories matter and endure- from the days of Homer's Odyssey to today's StoryCorps project (www.storycorps.org).

Storying in Aging Services

Fictional (imagination-based) and nonfictional (life-story based) storying has found its way to a range of aging services-from life-writing workshops like "Self Stories" for well elders and those wrestling with early stages of memory loss, to story circles, an ancient device for creating consensus and shared identity.

There are performance-oriented, intergenerational storytelling groups like StageBridge (www.stagebridge.org), and StoryCorps, which invites people of all ages and abilities to share stories and archive them through a partnership with the Library of Congress. Programs like "LifeBio," in which participants make memory boxes that are placed outside their doors, are designed to use story to make institutional staff aware of their residents' full selves.

Creative, improvisational storytelling, like TimeSlips (www.timeslips.org), is particularly useful for people with dementia. Research on TimeSlips in 2009 by Thomas Fritsch from the Memory and Aging Center at Case Western Reserve University shows nursing homes that practice the method see an increase in positive social engagement between staff and residents. Improved communication and a positive affect among residents with dementia were also documented in a 2010 study by Sinclair School of Nursing's Lorraine Phillips.

The Importance of Content and Form

The structure of narrative, familiar plot lines (e.g., good versus evil) and story forms (such as memoir) are passed down through generations orally and on paper, providing us with templates for our own stories. Memoir-like "identity" stories can be touchstones- often told and retold, even if the storyteller has severe cognitive decline and memory loss.

Narrative form (such as poetry or third-person story) may also open opportunities to voice seldom told stories. The late poet and professor Kenneth Koch, in his 1970s work involving poetry and older adults, found that poems provided a medium to tell personal stories that didn't fit into the narrative sequence of memoirs.

The Power in Telling

Telling a story is a powerful way to make sense of the joys and traumas of our lives. In 1999, medical anthropologist Gay Becker and others wrote extensively about how placing our experiences into a story can help us understand and heal. University of Texas Chair of Psychology James Pennebaker has spent the past two decades investigating the ways that writing personal stories may reduce physical pain and increase well-being. A body of research by Dan McAdams, department chair of clinical psychology at Northwestern University, tells us that we create a sense of unity and purpose when crafting narratives of who we are and what we believe in.

There are no proven preventions for dementia, but 2010 research by Dr. …