Have you ever noticed that elderly people often tell a finite number of stories over and over again? If you are providing care or support to an elderly loved one – a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend – maybe you recognize this idea, and feel like you are hearing the same stories over and over.
Many people assume this is because older adults don’t remember having told their stories before; but our research suggests something different. Based on interviews with caregivers who responded to our request to share the stories their elderly loved one tells or told, here’s what we have learned.
There really are just ten stories (give or take) that people tell repeatedly. What’s important about those stories is not the factual details, but the values and meaning embedded in them. If we can listen to those stories differently, we can understand them as containing important messages, giving us a chance to know our loved one at a deeper level, and assisting him or her to achieve consolidation and reconciliation of identity.
Caregivers have the opportunity to give their loved ones an incomparable gift when they receive their stories – the validation that they are important, that they have been seen and heard, and that they will be remembered.
Why tell stories?
Telling stories is one of the ways that we work our way backwards though life in an attempt to understand it. People tell personal stories for a number of reasons. In particular, we tell stories in order to find meaning in life. We seek coherence and continuity in our life story. We bear witness to the time in which we lived and the values and lessons it taught us. We seek to reconcile conflicts, to cement our legacy, and in some cases, even to anticipate judgment at the end of life. At the root of all of these reasons is the desire to be known, both to the self and to others, for who one truly is.
Telling stories in later life has been described by psychologist Erik Erikson, known best for his developmental theory of identity. He elaborated eight stages of life in which the identity is formed as one progresses from one stage to the next. Progress is achieved by reconciling challenges associated with each age and stage. The latter two stages typically give rise to the ten stories.
- Stage VII, entitled Generativity vs. Stagnation, is prompted by the challenge of adapting to changes in health and capacity, and remaining interested and hopeful for the future. Resolution of that challenge is achieved by resisting self-absorption, and continuing to invest in relationships, to care about others, and to have faith in humanity.
- Stage VIII, entitled Integrity vs. Despair, revolves around the challenge of reconciling fears, regrets, and disappointments. Its resolution requires us to own the totality of life and the wisdom that has come with experience.
Stories are part of the “personal myth” – the meta-narrative that confirms our identity, and satisfies the needs of the ego for meaning, consistency and validation. Many of the stories people tell feature themselves at their centre – sometimes as actor, sometimes as observer. The point of each story is often contained in the teller’s role. Our stories contain what we want the world to know about us.
Research tells us that a disproportionate number of stories emerge from the second and third decades of life – a time when many firsts take place, and when adult identity is being formed.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about stories is that they are constructed rather than retrieved. In other words, our memories aren’t just sitting there waiting for us to call them up. Remembering and telling stories is a much more active and creative process. Our memories are more like a painting than a photograph. While the image may have been registered in an instant, the final product is rendered over time. We fill in details; we correct flaws; we paint over inconsistencies. Think of the story teller as a minstrel or raconteur, rather than an archivist.
Reminiscences typically privilege the present over the past. We may indulge in some revisionist history in order to make the present make sense. We can be critical of the younger self, as a means of reassuring our older self. We may seek to show what we have learned, and how we are better now as a result of our experience.
There are literally millions of middle-aged and older adults fulfilling caregiving and support roles for their aging loved ones. That role is rewarding in many respects, but it can also be challenging and exhausting. Having to listen to the same stories over and over again can feel like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Maybe if we can listen to those stories differently, we can understand them as containing important messages, giving us a chance to know our loved one at a deeper level, and assisting him or her to achieve consolidation and reconciliation of identity.
Story-telling does not exist in a vacuum; rather, it is part of a relationship. It exists in the context of a sender and a receiver. The sender has his reasons for telling a particular story to a particular person, and for highlighting certain details and glossing over others. The ten stories that are told by a husband to his wife will be different from those told by a mother to her son. Furthermore, they will be different for each child, each sibling, each friend.
Listening for the ten stories
Here are some suggestions for listening to uncover your loved one’s Ten Stories:
- Focusing on just ten can help make the listening seem less overwhelming.
- Be attentive to feelings, sensations, discomfort. These can be clues to the point of the story.
- Autobiographical memories typically have 5 characteristics:
- Sensory vividness – there is often a sight, smell, sound, or even a taste or physical sensation that brings the story to life;
- Emotional intensity – there is often a strong emotion associated with the story. It can be positive or negative – joy, sorrow, shame, betrayal, pride, to name a few;
- Repetition — there may be repetition within the stories. The same theme or message may be validated by multiple references;
- Links – stories often link with one another – characters, locations, or actions may tie one story to another, providing coherence among stories;
- Tension – there may be unresolved conflict or tension that finds its release in the telling of the story.
- Notice your loved one’s role in the story, as the message is often contained in that role.
- Write them down. It can be important to step away from them and look at them with some degree of detachment. Writing also challenges you to get the details and sequence right.
Remember that these stories are for you – selected and told in the context of the relationship you have with your loved one. They would be different if they were being told to someone else. It is not the details of these stories that are important – it’s the message. What are the stories about – individually and collectively?
Share your loved one’s stories
We are seeking volunteers to assist us to further this research. We are collecting stories from caregivers and supporters, who volunteer to share with us the stories told to them by their loved ones.
If you would agree to be interviewed about your loved one’s stories, we would be pleased to hear from you.
You can reach us in a number of ways:
- Click here to send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Call us at 613-533-6000 ext. 78019.
- Attend a presentation in your community and sign up there. Unfortunately presentations are temporarily suspended while pandemic restrictions are in force, but watch this space when activities resume.