Our stories shape who we are

Storytelling for Seniors is a facilitated safe and fun session where we celebrate life’s journey through the sharing of stories.  I have teamed up with Nicky Howe and as Third Act Storytelling™ consultants we are excited to bring storytelling to you.

Storytelling for Seniors – Understanding our past

“I can’t help it. It’s just the way I am,” Mum said when I asked her why she stuffs the pantry full. She told me the stories of war-time Britain with rations as well as having a gambling father. “When you have to worry about when and where your next meal is coming from early in life, it is natural and comforting to me to have plenty of food now it is available to me”.

It is stories like this that help me piece together the history of Mum’s life, and what makes her who she is.

Storytelling is an age-old tradition around the world. When people gather to create or enjoy the stories of someone’s life, they’re connecting in ways that build lasting friendships and family bonds.

Stories help shed light on who people are and what their lives were like in their younger years. And as I have discovered listening to senior’s stories can not only capture a glimpse into the past but forge a greater understanding of why the person behaves or thinks in a certain way.

As we age our narrative changes.We shift our perception about past events as life unfolds.

My early days of shared storytelling were on Saturday afternoons when West Ham Football Club played a home game. My nan lived a couple of streets from the football ground, and we’d gather at her place and sit in her tiny sitting room eating egg and cress finger sandwiches and drinking hot chocolate. Nan would play the piano and her sister Hilda would join in on the harmonica. The singing would pave the way for stories of family shenanigans. Family members who were absent or passed were often the subject of the stories. As children would listen eagerly to newly told stories and inwardly eye roll to the stories that were often repeated (and at times exaggerated).

Stories shared with our seniors are treasures to be heard, nourished and celebrated.

Telling others our stories is a way of connecting and expressing our emotions. It is now I am older,  that I cherish our family stories even more. I want to capture as many of her stories as possible, and in revisiting some of the stories she told me when I was young, as well as uncovering some that were not shared previously, I have a deeper understanding of what Mum’s life was like and why she acts in the way she does.

Understanding the stories of our past

Mum buys far too much food for someone who lives alone. Overstocking the pantry comes from her growing up in wartime when food was scarce. Her father, a gambling man ( I only recently found this out) would often lose the money for groceries. My mum had a second job and her and my nan would stock the fridge before race day so that at least they had food. Mum has a tendency to overeat rather than to stop eating when she feels full.

I can see why now, she grew up not allowed to leave the table until her plate was empty and she was taught it was not good manners to say no when you were offered food. These are things that she cannot stop doing easily, and it helps me show empathy now that I know why. I love hearing about mum’s stories of hardship, resilience and creativity. Her generation has seen so much change in their lifetime, and it is strange for my kids or me to imagine a world without technology, choice and relative safety and comfort.

It’s healing to have this out in the open

My mum has shared memories with me that I will cherish and pass on to my children. She told me recently that going on the storytelling journey with me has ‘felt so useful’. It has also helped us clear up some misunderstandings and set the record straight. I am now finding out things that mum thought it best that I didn’t know when I was younger, and it’s very healing to have this out in the open now.

We feel comfortable to share warts ‘n all versions of previous editions of stories that had been censored somehow (fear of judgement, shame, to protect others). It feels freeing to have the truth in our stories out in the open, for us to cherish and for me to pass on when the time is right.

Storytelling for seniors creates meaning and a sense of purpose

I find in my work as a storytelling consultant and coach that older people underestimate the power of their story. Yet when people are willing to tell and listen to stories from the past it allows us to create meaning and a sense of purpose for where we are now at in life. This is why I decided to create Storytelling for Seniors with Nicky Howe.

In his research on healthy aging, Cohen describes four stages of development in our later years. The first stage is called Midlife Reevaluation’ and takes paces between the ages of 40 to 60, and during this time we reflect on life and often seek meaning. We become more aware of our mortality and try to live life to the full with more of a sense of urgency. I am in this age bracket, and I often ponder ‘how time flies’ and how much I still feel I need to do. I have more of a sense of drive to make an impact with the knowledge that time is limited.

The second stage called Liberation and occurs from the age of 60. It is a time when people are inclined to speak their mind and to take action on what needs to be done. The next phase is Summing Up and is from the 70’s through the 80’s. At this stage, people reflect and are motivated to share stories and to pass on the wisdom learned in life. The final stage is the Encore which can occur anywhere from the 70’s until the end of life. It is at this time that there may be a desire to deal with unfinished business and even a change in belief or motivation.

Don’t wait until it’s too late

I have friends who were not able to spend time with their family members and get their stories before they passed, and that can be sad. If you have your parents or senior members of your family around, then make the time to capture their stories. Allow them to speak freely without interrupting their flow. Wait until they finish talking before you ask questions of clarification. Use a notebook or an audio app to record the stories if you both feel comfortable doing that. At various stages of development, stories can change. While the facts remain the same the perception of events and the meaning may change, and that is why it is important to revisit and reshare stories with seniors.

With age comes wisdom but sometimes older adults don’t realise that they have the incredible knowledge to share or they have a sense of narrative foreclosure which is the sense that one’s story has ended.

Narrative foreclosure is the sense that one’s story has ended and many older people have this feeling. When we embrace storytelling for seniors we are able to connect with stories from the past and to re-write those stories from the past with different insights or a new lens.

Why shared storytelling is so important for seniors

Here are ten benefits of storytelling for seniors including:

  1. The gift of being heard and of allowing people to remember who they are and what they have done.
  2. To open up space to reconnect with memories and to share those memories with others.
  3. To create a sense of increased personal power and importance.
  4. To face the approaching end of life with a feeling that one has contributed to the world.
  5. An acceptance of one’s past (“all things considered”) as significant and worthwhile.
  6. The ability to recognise negative past experiences and the integration of them with the present.
  7. A reconciliation of conflicts and an acceptance of those may have caused hurt in the past.
  8. A sharing of traditional values and cultural heritage.
  9. A passing on of the lessons learned and personal wisdom in one’s life.
  10. An opportunity to recapture the threads of meaning, purpose and connection that are woven throughout their lives.

“I never knew that about you,” or “Why didn’t you ever tell us that story before?”

For older adults who can’t tell their own stories, family members can help bridge this gap or encourage them to share. It is sometimes the case that seniors feel that their stories aren’t of interest to others. When we create a nurturing and inclusive story space, we provide an environment where every story is treasured and worth sharing and that if a person prefers to listen to other’s stories rather than share their own, then that is perfectly okay.

One of the most rewarding benefits of shared storytelling for seniors is the chance to connect on a deeper level over topics the senior may still find easy and comforting. When you know someone’s story, you naturally develop empathy for them. And knowing part of their story helps to reveal a person’s personality beyond their age or their physical condition.

How can we help you share your story?

Lisa Evans and Nicky Howe are experienced storytellers who together have formed Third Act Storytelling™.  Our aim is to create a fun, safe story space where we facilitate the sharing of life stories to bring us together and cherish the art of oral storytelling.

Contact us to arrange to host a Storytelling for Seniors session for your community group.