About Ten Stories

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 that this is because they don’t remember having told them 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. The point of each story is often contained in the teller’s role.  Stories are part of the “personal myth” – the meta-narrative that confirm our identity.  They contain what we want the world to know about us.

Autobiographical memories typically have 5 characteristics:

  1. Sensory vividness – there is often a sight, smell, sound, or even a taste or physical sensation that brings the story to life;
  2. 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;
  3. Repetition — there may be repetition within the stories.  The same theme or message may be validated by multiple references;
  4. Links – stories often link with one another – characters, locations, or actions may tie one story to another, providing coherence among stories;
  5. Tension – there may be unresolved conflict or tension that finds its release in the telling of the story.

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. Reminiscence privileges 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. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about memory is that it is constructed rather than retrieved.  Memories aren’t just sitting there waiting to be called up.  Memory is a much more active and creative process; more like a painting than a photograph.  Think of the story teller as a minstrel or raconteur, rather than an archivist.

Life can only be understood backwards, although it must be lived forwards

Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher

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