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The Power of Gathering Stories

Preserving Our Collective Wisdom: The Power of Gathering Stories

Photo by Emma Gossett on Unsplash


Connecting with older adults by having them share their life story creates bonds and good feelings for both the listener and the teller.

By Michelle Trent, BA

“When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground. “
African Proverb

     Firsthand witnesses of history are all around us. In today’s “Ask Google anything” culture, it is easy to forget that there are human resources walking beside us and living among us. If we take the time to ask and listen, these living libraries might share with us from the volumes of their knowledge. Learning this history is more than an act of information gathering; it is also an act of love. When we seek to learn from people, we are telling them that we value them and what they have experienced. We are letting them know that they matter while listening to what formed their life philosophy and values.

     I remember distinctly the day I met Ingrid. As a personal historian, I’m always excited to get to know a new storyteller. Just like opening a book for the first time, there is anticipation. She spoke with a German accent, one that was both charming and mysterious. And she was beautiful, so vivacious and welcoming. Here was a woman anyone would notice if she passed by on the street. However, this was not a chance encounter; this was an opportunity to get to know her and hear her life story. We started with her earliest memory. Usually, people can remember something vividly starting around the age of four or five, and Ingrid was no different. However, her recollection was like nothing I had heard. It didn’t take place in the security of her family home. No, Ingrid’s first memory was of herself and her sister ascending from a WWII bomb shelter and finding their family home pulverized by explosives dropped from Allied planes they’d heard whining overhead.

     Ingrid was a child living in Germany during NVorld War II. She showed me a perspective I’d never considered before. Growing up in the U.S., I had heard about the liberating Americans and concentration camp victims many times but knew nothing regarding the human costs borne by the losing side as the conflict escalated on their home soil. This war child has a unique perspective. Not only did I absorb lessons from her youth, but also instructive anecdotes peppered throughout her entire life story. These lessons were of perseverance, marriage, love, loss, disposition, and much more.

     Ingrid is special, but she’s not unique. We all have life stories worthy of being heard. It’s tempting for people to believe that their stories aren’t valuable if they didn’t do something extraordinary, like win an Olympic medal or live through a monumental time such as World War II. Those epic highs and lows make for fascinating tales but we mustn’t discount the seemingly ordinary storylines: lost love, admitting we were wrong, finding humility, or extending grace. We all benefit when we listen to another’s relatable life experience. It validates and enriches us as humans. This may be especially true when it comes to older adults. Their facade of physical deterioration can blind us to the intriguing lives they’ve led and the wisdom they hold. We open doors for them, but what if we took it further and opened up a conversation?

Stories From My Father

     What about those closest to us? We know them, right? Not necessarily. My 70-year-old father was certainly a man I should have la-lown well, but I didn’t. Even though my parents were married nearly fifty years and my dad was a constant in my life, I didn’t really get to know him until the very end, after he had battled cancer for years. When the doctors told us there was nothing more to do, I went into panic mode. How could I lose my dad? How could I save a piece of him? At my husband’s prompting, we hooked up a mic and I sat with him daily and asked him questions in order to preserve his stories and memories.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that I learned more about my dad in his final two weeks than I did my entire life. It was only at this desperate stage that I took the time to listen. I wish I had done I hadn’t.

     Hearing my dad share his story was fascinating.  We laughed, we cried.  This man who I’d only seen as a father figure was a well-rounded person.  He’d had a crazy childhood and a girl-chasing adolescence.  He’d experienced successes and failres, had lofty dreams and goals, had struggled — and he wanted to know that he mattered.  He was more than “just a father” and more than “just a businessman,” but he could have easily slipped away before I realized that.

     After each session of storytelling, my father’s mood was noticably elevated.  I could sense this.  The nurses could, too, and they began commenting about it.  Storytelling gave my dad purpose.  There wasn’t much he could do confined to a bed.  Sharing his life story and introducing himself to future gnerations became his final purpose.  I watched as doors to long-closed memories kept opening.  He remembered more and more as he shared what came to him.  He had the chance to live his adventures once again.  Even the setbacks he shared had new perspective.  As one looks back, everything makes more sense.  This may be the best gift of aging.

Life Review

     These final recordings mean everything to my family and me.  However, this clearly was not one-sided.  My dad enjoyed the experience and it gave him something to focus on when his options became limited. This made me curious and I sought to learn more about what had happened. Was this experience unique? Or is lending an ear and asking questions something we can all do for the benefit of those around us? Turns out, what I did as a desperate act is similar to a life review. Life review is a suggested form of therapy that steps a person through the various stages of their life. By looking back or reviewing life, a person gains perspective and integrity (Butler, 1974).

     Robert Butler, MD, president of the New York-based International Longevity Center, pioneered the concept of life review and coined the term. As a young researcher for the National Institutes of Health, he noticed the profound effect reminiscing had on those he studied. As people go back and revisit memories, it allows them to ascribe meaning and even reshape painful periods of their past. By doing so, well-being is often improved and that leads to a host of other benefits from increased self-esteem to reducing depression (Nall, 2015). This is a gift we can give to one another.

VIDEO AND AUDIO APPS

To expand this capability, consider downloading an app. Many app options exist so first determine what you want as a finished product and then explore the best tool for your purposes. Keep in mind that some apps are for iOS phones exclusively and others for Android phones. The following voice apps come highly recommended (Steele, 2019).

  • Voice Memos
  • Rev
  • Voice Recorder & Audio Editor
  • Voice Record Pro
  • Otter Voice Notes

Much More Than Stories

     We can assign meaning to our experiences through telling our life story. What is terrorizing in the moment — like seeing your home destroyed as a child — takes on new meaning in later years. The event is still awful but we have decades of distance and greater perspective to see how that event shaped us. Ingrid could see how her early years in Germany shaped her character and eventually, through a string of events, led to her becoming a U.S. citizen. Seeing her family home destroyed was just one domino in a lifetime of events that pushed her forward to the beautiful life she leads today.

     Telling the events of our life can make sense of them. It can provide connection points for others to know us better. When we gather one-on-one or in groups to share our experiences, we are no longer alone. Sharing our stories engages us emotionally with others. Storytelling can bridge our differences and highlight how we are similar. There is a commonality in the human condition that is revealed through storytelling and creates a bond between people. This has immense value. Lack of connection and isolation can lead to depression. An estimated 16 percent of people over the age of sixty-five report being told by a health professional they have a depressive disorder (America’s Health Rankings, 2019). Even those estimates are likely underreported because depression in older adults is often undiagnosed. Many mistakenly believe that depression or depressive symptoms are a normal part of aging (CDC, 2017).

     When someone shares his or her life story or is engaged in listening to one, the brain is activated. Chemicals like cortisol, dopamine, and oxytocin get released. The firing of these chemicals can make us feel better (Peterson, 2017). The listener starts to relate with the characters and situations within the story. The mature person being listened to suddenly takes on a new role as a daring young woman striking out on her own for the first time, or a young man smitten by love. The listener sees that person differently and begins to empathize. Now the storyteller is more than just another resident or client. That person becomes a well-rounded character who has something in common with the listener. We’ve built a connection and shared an experience (Widrich, 2020).

     Some people are eager to share their stories and others are reluctant. In my experience, even the most hesitant of storytellers will give you a little something, a tiny glimpse into who they are and who they once were. Time and consistency reinforce this relationship. Anyone can encourage this beautiful exchange by asking open-ended questions. Instead of asking, “Did you like living on a farm?” ask, “What was it like living on a farm?” Prompt them to dig deeper and provide details. Let them reminisce. There’s a treasure trove of content residing in their mind. Asking open-ended questions gets the conversation started but the next step is crucial: the questioner must listen. When we are distracted and in a hurry, it appears as if we’re not interested. Nothing shuts down storytelling faster than disinterest.

     Stories are fascinating and they connect people. They also provide insight we might not gather otherwise. For example, you may observe that a resident or client has a handful of seashells on the counter. Why? Why, among the downsizing of possessions, does that person hold those shells dear? As you ask and listen, you may hear a story about how she used to live near the ocean, kayaked to a friend’s house, or was a competitive swimmer. With this knowledge, you can connect that person with others who have similar interests, suggest activities that individual might like, and use references that might have special meaning to the person. For example, maybe she is frightened of a new therapy. You could frame it as, “It’s just like when you did your first long swim in the ocean. The waves were overwhelming initially, but once you learned how to maneuver through them, everything became easier and you began to enjoy it.” When you know more about a person, you operate from a position of knowledge and friendship. That difference is noticeable.

Using Technology and Prompts to Preserve History

     When we preserve stories, we can uncover these connections. So how does one go about saving these priceless memories? A simple and powerful resource is in the palm of most everyone’s hand. Today’s smartphones have incredible capacity for recording. As a professional, I use high-end mics and Adobe Audition for editing. However, anyone can use the voice recorder on a phone to capture stories. quality is not at the same level but it’s far better to collect the stories in any manner than to miss the opportunity. The story file can then be downloaded to a computer for editing or can be edited using the phone’s voice recording tool. If the phone’s included voice memo utility is too basic, consider downloading an app for more functionality. There are numerous apps that can be downloaded for free or low cost and used to record, and then edit, stories. Some of these apps, like Rev or Otter Voice Notes, even provide an option to transcribe the recording. This is ideal if the storyteller might like to create a book of their musings. Once you have something to start with in the way of a transcribed file, the thought of creating a book doesn’t seem as overwhelming.

     Most people today use their phones readily to take photos and videos. And, just like the case with audio recordings, you can use your phone to capture a video recording of the storyteller. In fact, it may seem like the next logical step to make the preservation project even more special. For some people, this is ideal. However, be mindful as you ask the storyteller if he or she would like to share on video. Videos, especially those created by professional videographers, are phenomenal. Yet, some people are more hesitant to be “on camera” than to engage in a voice recording. A well-told story transports the listener. teller narrates the action and the listener fills in the detail from the words spoken. On the other hand, video shows the storyteller as that person appears today. Often (as in the case of my dad) the person is in a compromised state. I wanted to remember him as I envisioned him, not as he sat in a hospital bed, looking very old and tired. He wanted the same.

     If video is the right fit, consider interspersing the project with old photos and artifacts. These can take some of the pressure off the storyteller and open the viewer’s mind. They are then seeing beyond what is recorded by the camera to also view the life the person once lived. Video makes a wonderful legacy gift and archive. Just be attentive to the reaction of the storyteller when suggesting a video recording. If the person is hesitant, an audio recording is still precious and relatively easy to execute.

     If you are concerned that you’ll run out of questions or just don’t know how to get started, there are many books to use as resources. I recently authored Wisdom is a Gift. A Guide to Preserving Family Stories that chronicles some of my experience and steps readers through how to record a loved one. Many other options exist as well. By simply typing “preserving family stories” or similar terms into an online search, you will uncover numerous titles to fit your needs. Some of the books are fill-in-the-blanks. use question prompts and allow space for writing the corresponding memory. If a loved one enjoys writing, these are good options and easy to use. However, some older adults find writing difficult.

Getting It Done

     The biggest challenge many face when deciding to preserve a loved one’s story is simply making the decision to do it. I’ve encountered too many people who intended to save stories of their loved one ‘someday.” Unfortunately, life is unpredictable. There is no better day to ask a question and preserve a conversation than today. If time is the greatest obstacle, consider hiring a professional. Search for a “personal historian” within your area. %ese folks have made it their business to help families capture stories and memories. Once you find one, you can rest easier. Though a personal historian is a stranger initially, he or she won’t be for long. Asking questions, listening, and sharing in the process of storytelling quickly connects people, even those with no familial ties.

     Listening to someone’s story is an act of love. By doing so, we validate the storytellers who they are and what they have experienced. We are letting them know that they matter. The listeners, in turn, are enriched along the way. We cannot uncover the essence of the person in front of us by turning to Google. many clients I’ve recorded all have a special place in my heart. %ey’ve taught me much and allowed me to see from different perspectives. Each time, as I wrap up an interview, they thank me and I thank them. We have shared something special. Often, there are tears. Usually, there is laughter as well. But what I mostly see is hard to describe. It’s what the nursing staff remarked about that I experienced with my father. Trre is a lifting of the spirit. During the time we were together, they felt purpose. Their hard-earned stories have meaning. At the very least, they have meaning to the person who listened and the storyteller who longed to be heard.

STORYCORPS

When it comes to gathering and sharing stories, StoryCorps (https://storycorps.org/) is the leader of the pack. Founded in 2003, its mission is to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. Many have heard these touching exchanges on National Public Radio, where they are aired weekly. However, these archived stories are not limited to a few. Simply follow the guidelines on the StoryCorps site to be included. Additionally, StoryCorps recently created an app to make the process even simpler. Download the app, capture the story, and then upload it to the archive all from a smartphone. If you decide to explore the StoryCorps Archive at https://archive.storycorps.org/, beware — you’ll want to carve out several hours!


VETERANS HISTORY PROJECT

A project of the American Folklife Center, the Veterans History Project (https://archive. storycorps.org/) collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from former soldiers to better understand military life and the realities of war. Veterans can share personal narratives, correspondence, and visual materials such as photographs, drawings, and scrapbooks. Anyone age fifteen or older can conduct an interview of a  veteran and submit it for inclusion to the archive by following the directions in the Veterans History Project Field Kit. Citizens Can search the archive at https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/html/search/search.html for stories in numerous ways, including name of veteran,conflict, era, service location, and unit/ship. Each veteran account provides insight into a life that only those who served can know.

Michele Trent graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in Radio and Television Communication. She is the owner and founder of Remembered Well, a personal history preservation business she began after her own experience recording her father during his final weeks of life. Having his stories – as told in his own voice – is an irreplaceable treasure for her and her family. She now provides this interviewing/recording service to other families. Michele recently authored a book, “Wisdom is a Gift. A Guide to Preserving Family Stories” to help families by providing a process for making their own recordings. Reach Michele at Michele@RememberedWell.com.

REFERENCES

America’s Health Rankings United Health Foundation. (2019). 2019 senior report. Retrieved from https://www.americashealthrankings.org/search?q=seniors+and+depression

Butler, R.N. (1974, December). Successful aging and the role of the life review. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.  [PubMed] [Google Scholar]). Retrieved from https://onlinelibraty.wiley.com/doi/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, January 31). Depression is not a normal part of growing older. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/aging/mentalhealth/depression.htm

Nail, R. (2015, March 9). Life review therapy. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/life-review-therapy

Peterson, L. (2017, November 14). The science behind the art of storytelling. Retrieved from https://www.hatwardbusiness.org/the-science-behind-the-art-of-stotytelling/

Widrich, L. (2012, November 29). The science of stotytelling: What listening to a story does to our brains [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://buffer.com/resources/science-of-stoytelling-whytelling-a-story-is-the-most-powefful-way-to-activate-our-brains

REFERENCES

America’s Health Rankings United Health Foundation. (2019). 2019 senior report. Retrieved from https://www.americashealthrankings.org/search?q=seniors+and+depression

Butler, R.N. (1974, December). Successful aging and the role of the life review. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.  [PubMed] [Google Scholar]). Retrieved from https://onlinelibraty.wiley.com/doi/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, January 31). Depression is not a normal part of growing older. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/aging/mentalhealth/depression.htm

Nail, R. (2015, March 9). Life review therapy. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/life-review-therapy

Peterson, L. (2017, November 14). The science behind the art of storytelling. Retrieved from https://www.hatwardbusiness.org/the-science-behind-the-art-of-stotytelling/

Widrich, L. (2012, November 29). The science of stotytelling: What listening to a story does to our brains [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://buffer.com/resources/science-of-stoytelling-whytelling-a-story-is-the-most-powefful-way-to-activate-our-brains

The Power of Gathering Stories

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