Listening for the ten stories

There are literally millions of middle-aged and older adults fulfilling caregiving 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. 

But 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.

After all, story-telling does not exist in a vacuum;  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 stories told by a husband to his wife will be different from those told by a mother to her son, a sibling, or a friend.

Our research shows that people typically tell only about ten stories repeatedly.  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.

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.
  • 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. 

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.


Life Reminiscence

Psychologists refer to the process of telling stories about one’s own life as “life reminiscence”. Research can tell us a number of things about this process.

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.

Many of the stories we tell feature ourselves at their centre – sometimes as actor, sometimes as observer. A disproportionate number of life reminiscences emerge from the second or third decades – a time when many firsts took place, and when the adult identity was being formed. Reminiscences typically privilege the present over the past, making the present self look good at the expense of the past self. We can be critical of the past self, showing what we have learned, and how we are better now as a result of our experience.

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 story to a particular person, for highlighting certain details, and for glossing over potential difficulties. At the same time, the receiver has her filters – things that she reacts to, mutually remembers or simply can’t hear. 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.


Autobiographical memory

It’s not the details of these stories that’s important – it’s the message. What are the stories about – individually and collectively? In order to understand that, we need a bit of background about autobiographical memory.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about memory is that it is constructed rather than retrieved. In other words, memories aren’t just sitting there waiting for us to call them up. Memory is a much more active and creative process.   Our memories are not so much a photograph as a painting. While the image may be registered in an instant, the final product is rendered over time. We fill in details; we correct flaws; we paint over inconsistencies.

And what is the point of all this revisionist history? The purpose is the creation of the “personal myth” — a narrative account of identity that satisfies the needs of the ego for meaning, consistency and validation. Research tells us that memory and identity go hand in hand. Both are constructed, and therefore we need to think about the storyteller as a minstrel or raconteur, rather than as an archivist.

Erik Erikson, psychologist known best for his developmental theory of identity, elaborated eight stages of life. Erikson contends that 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 last two stages, stages VII and VIII, are, not surprisingly, associated with facing the end of life and one’s diminishing capabilities.

  • Stage VII, entitled Generativity vs. Stagnation, is about the challenge of adapting to health and capacity changes, and remaining interested and hopeful for the future. It is about 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, is about reconciling fears, regrets and disappointments, and owning the totality of life and the wisdom that has come with experience.

It is these latter two stages that give rise to the ten stories.

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