Mary shuffles into the room on her walker, her steps slow and uncoordinated. She takes her place, as she does every Thursday afternoon, ready to travel back in time and share stories. Mary is one among close to 15 ladies who forms a part of a weekly group I facilitate called My Life in Stories. I started this group in a retirement community back in 2009 as a brand new immigrant in a foreign country, finding my place in a Chicago suburb, far away from Chennai, the home I’d known all my life.
Once upon a time in my childhood
If I were to describe my life in a single word, I’d choose the word story. My paternal grandma deserves the rich honour of opening the doors to the realm of imagination and creativity. As I think back to memories of childhood, she is the one who steals the spotlight. I sat besides her on sweltering summer afternoons, feeling the soft wrinkled folds of skin on her arm as I traveled to Lanka and Mithila, Dwaraka and Hastinapura. I flew the blue skies with Hanuman as he brought home the life-restoring herb from Sanjivini to revive a wounded Lakshmana when he fought the demon king, Ravana. I tasted every fruit that Shabari lovingly plucked and bit into in keen anticipation of Lord Rama’s visit.
It was Grandma who fostered in me a deep and abiding love of story—the art of storytelling, story writing and trading people’s stories with mine.
Story shapes our life.
Story gives meaning to our journey.
Story is the container for our destiny.
The wise old art of storytelling
To my pleasant surprise, it was storytelling that saved me as I applied for jobs in a new country, wondering if I’d have to settle for a humdrum desk job doing something just for a paycheck. A part-time position in a senior living community allowed me the bandwidth to create a space for seniors to share their life stories. For sixty minutes every week, a group of octogenarians and nonagenarians take centre stage in my group. As they tell stories of lives lived a long time ago, their faces light up and their eyes shine.
We live in a world where the elderly feel invisible a lot of the time. In our talk-text-and-message world of quick communication, their rambling narratives and measured pace, minuscule attention spans and confused memories have no place.
They find in this space a firm footing, as stories stored in long-term memories unfold, one sentence, one situation, one scene at a time. Stories of growing up dirt-poor during the Depression era; of crouching with pounding hearts in makeshift bomb shelters; of sending their men to war and committing to the war effort themselves; of evenings spent listening to the radio; of after-dinner dessert being nothing more ambitious than a dish of berries or peaches; of their moms labouring to get the perfect Shirley Temple curls, the rage of the time.
These are stories that remain evergreen in their minds—even as they struggle to remember whether they took their post-lunch pill or transferred the wet wash to the dryer.
Something delightful happens in the room when someone forgets a minor detail of the past. When Janice has trouble recalling the brand of butter that most families used back in the day, Virginia helps her out. That starts a discussion on butter churns, which leads to how they washed clothes using an old-fashioned wringer and the smell of sunshine on sheets. Each one helps connect the dots and feel connected to a world they all inhabited, which helps them connect to each other. These connections travel well beyond story time in the group.
For someone like me, a stranger to their culture and their world, it has been like living and breathing history. Now I know concentration camp and World war survivors; I know men who fought in these wars; I know women who raised police officers and fire-fighters. As 12 to 15 people become inspiring, heroic characters in their retellings, I watch history come alive.
It is a rich emotional experience, this sharing of stories. As they tell me tales of jukeboxes and ice cream fountains, I share stories of growing up in India, of customs and rituals that shaped my life, of rural and urban life that harmonise the reality of the haves and have-nots.
How sharing tales help?
This time of shared life stories has multiple benefits that go far beyond the pleasure of community and connection.
Transmit life lessons to the younger generations
80 plus years of living brings with it rich life lessons. Although the world of these seniors was significantly different from the one we inhabit, the themes and threads that run through life are always the same: the desire for happiness, a meaningful vocation, more connected relationships and less stress. Having travelled the path, elders have much wisdom to share on how to navigate life’s rocky terrain.
Mental health benefits
Storytelling is known to improve memory function in seniors. Recall, narration and connecting the dots strengthen areas of the brain which may otherwise atrophy. Added to this is the benefit of emotional nurturing as seniors feel a sense of belonging, coming from a world of challenges and pleasures they all shared.
Social and emotional connections
When seniors move into the community, they often feel displaced from homes and neighbourhoods they have known and loved. My group is a safe way for them to ease the loneliness of the transition as they find and form new friendships with others who are in similar shoes.
Connection to a common world
At a time when they can barely remember where they placed their walker or how to get to a certain room to attend a programme, sharing stories of a world they remember helps them feel rooted. It was a time when they had real roles in life as mothers, wives, teachers and nurses and it strengthens them to be reminded of a purposeful existence.
The opportunity for a life review
In reviewing their lives from today’s perspective, many have had the opportunity to understand mistakes made and choices that led them down roads they may not have chosen to travel. It is a fresh opportunity to revisit some unpleasant stories and give them pleasant endings. Beginnings and endings define the chapter of life. As we sit around a table and tell stories, we have the opportunity to create new beginnings and better endings.
Growing old can be awfully lonely. Storytelling helps seniors know that their life matters and gives you time to spend with your loved ones. These last days will not come again. So by reliving old tales and memories, you can make sure that the seniors don’t waste them by worrying.
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