Listening for the ten stories

shellThere are literally millions of middle aged and older adults fulfilling a key role in the lives of their aging loved ones. That role may be one of caregiver, confidante, advocate, coordinator, liaison or service broker, to name a few. The role is rewarding in many respects, but it can also be challenging and exhausting, especially when layered on top of other responsibilities. Having to listen to the same stories over and over again can feel like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

But maybe if we can listen to those stories differently, they won’t feel like such a burden. Perhaps we can understand them as meant especially for us, giving us one last chance to know our loved one, and assisting him or her to achieve a final consolidation and reconciliation of identity.

Here are some of the features of the ten stories that our research has revealed:

  • Focusing on just ten can help to make the listening seem less overwhelming.

  • Listen for the emphasis on feelings, on sensations, on discomfort. These can be clues to the point of the story.

  • The point of the story is probably contained in your loved one’s role in the story. Remember that these stories form part of the personal myth – the meta-narrative that your loved one wants the world to know about him or her. They are the stories that confirm or validate his or her identity.

  • Autobiographical memories typically have 5 characteristics:

    • sensory vividness – there is often a sight, a smell, a sound, even a taste or a physical sensation that brings the story to life;

    • emotional intensity – there is often a strong emotion associated with the story. It can be a positive or negative emotion – such as, joy, sorrow, hurt, shame, betrayal, pride, to name a few;

    • There is often repetition even within a story of the important theme or message;

    • Often there are links with other memories. One story may validate or confirm the theme of other stories in the set;

    • Unresolved conflict is a source of tension that often finds its release in telling the story.

  • It may be important to be able to step away from them and look at them with some degree of detachment. Writing them down can help with that.

  • Remember that these stories are for you. They are the things your loved one want you to remember — about him or her, and about life in general. The stories would be different if they were being told to someone else.

  • Finally, remember that you have the opportunity to give your loved one an incomparable gift when you receive his or her stories. You permit him or her to be remembered as he or she wishes. You validate that he or she was important – to you and also to the world they leave behind.