Help my aging dad tell his story

I received this question in a comment yesterday, and it is so rich in the story of the human condition I am bringing it forward and answering it in this post.  It was posted by Judy as a comment on my blog Be Here Now by Writing.

Dear Jerry,

My Dad is 89 years old. My Mom is in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer’s, and he is in assisted living where they were together until recently. He is terribly depressed, since this is virtually their first time apart in 63 years, but the one thing that can still light him up is his stories. If I give him a cue, he will be off and running. He used to write many of his stories at a writers’ group my mom organized for many years, and I have some of these stories. My husband and I have been transcribing them and reading them to him, and he loves this.

He was invited to present one of them at a story writing workshop at Assisted Living, but since he is nearly blind, he couldn’t read it. The Activities Director offered to read it for him (a particularly wonderful, emotional story) and he said okay, but it was devastating for him. It turned out that he had rehearsed the story many times in his head in order to be able to tell it eloquently. When she read his words, he was terribly upset, even though he had agreed.

What do you think should be done with his stories? He has a zillion of them in his head and as I’m writing to you, I’m thinking that maybe we need to create an index of them so that when someone says the title or word, he can then tell the story. It seems to give him back a big part of himself. The story that was read this weekend was called “Silent Conversation” and it was about an incident that occurred years ago with my daughter who was about 9 at the time. It was a gorgeous story. Any advice or input regarding how to use his stories to light him up would be greatly appreciated.

Judy

Hi Judy,

Thanks for sharing this rich story, filled with emotion and the drama of the human condition. That’s the magic of stories. Even in your tiny comment, I feel like I know him and you. How lovely that you have found the pleasure he gets from tapping into his stories. That’s awesome! And he has a little built in audience in the story writing workshop that his own wife created. That is so poetic I’m getting goosebumps.

Your tiny story paints a powerful picture. He wanted to be the one to tell the story. There’s a buzzword for this desire. It’s called “communalization” and is typically used for recovering from trauma. I think it also applies to aging people who feel isolated in their experience. He wants to communalize his experience by sharing it with others. We are social animals and the story helps draw us together at any age.

He isn’t losing his functioning to remember his stories. And it sounds like with all that rehearsing he has the passion for telling them well. So the solution is simple, and you sort of present it yourself. Let him do the talking. So what if it’s not told in the exact same words as it was originally written? What it loses in polish it will gain in spontaneity. And because he is doing the talking, it will make him feel understood and heard.

I wasn’t quite sure if he also wants to record more, or if he would be content with repeating the stories you already have. In either case, you could improve the situation with some technology. Buy him a digital recorder (these little devices have become really powerful and convenient). He can record the story over and over until he gets it right. Then you can copy it to an iPod and he or anyone can play them on demand. (I’d be happy to tell you a little more about the technical issues if you want.) Or you and your husband could read his written stories into a tape recorder so he could listen to them. Or train Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe them into text. All these technologies are cheap and straightforward.

The missing ingredient for many people is the availability of a helpful support team. But he has that. Not only does he have the life writing group at his assisted living facility. He also has loving children who are interested in his story telling and searching for ways to help him.

Sincerely,

Jerry Waxler

6 thoughts on “Help my aging dad tell his story

  1. Thanks for raising the passage of time, Sunny. That’s one of the most exhilarating things about writing a memoir. As soon as you try to see life as a story, you know time is real. Everything you have achieved has been done through time, so if you want to achieve something in the future, you have to put it into time now.

  2. All I would add is, what a wonderful thing to do, not just for her father, but for Judy – so she’ll have those memories to keep and pass on. My parents are 85 and I find myself asking them all sorts of questions – things we’ve even talked about in the past, but now I write it all down.

  3. Hello Judy,
    You are so lucky. I am currently working on a book about my mom and dad and they are deceased. You are so lucky that you are doing this now. I have come across so many things that I wished I had done prior. I would love to share those with you.

    My parents were diagnosed with cancer about 3 months apart. My children never got to know who their grandparents were. Before they passed away their house burnt to the ground losing everything including photos. When my grandmother passes away, I inherited her photos. I was so happy because we didn’t have any of my mom and dad or their heritage.

    I am currently making a book about my parent’s life with photos and memoirs. The problem is there are photos of people (relatives) and I don’t know who they are. So I suggest that you get out your photographs and make sure that you have each photo properly labeled. Or better yet, begin a book of his life through http://www.createyourfamilyheritage.com.

    I just got done emailing all the relatives that currently have email addresses asking them to identify the photos and tell their story. I had a cue sheet of questions that I asked them. I can email them to you if interested. Probably too long for this post.

    YOU ARE DOING A FANTASTIC THING! I am so please that you are preserving your memories before they are lost! I think it is super that you are getting his story because everyone has one to tell! Everyone reading this post should make sure they have their family story in a book.

    I am creating my book through Heritage Makers. You can access it through the website above! Let me know if you want any help with your fathers story!

    Pam Senek
    http://www.createyourfamilyheritage.com

  4. HI Jerry,
    Long time no chat! Hey, I am thinking about writing my life story in a digital book. If you recall, we spoke some time ago about Heritage makers. I would love to hear your suggestions regarding where to begin. I am only 43 so I am confident that my story is not yet finished. I began writing about my early childhood and didn’t remember much. Since I value preserving memories for my kids and since my parent died in their early 60’s and they didn’t preserve their heritage, I think it is important to get some things down now. I would love to talk to you! Pam

  5. Hi Pam,

    Thanks for your follow-up comment, 11 months after the first. Memoir work is a life long project, so it doesn’t surprise me your interest is coming up again. Perhaps it’s the New Year that has you thinking about it now? I love New Year’s Resolutions, and think it’s a great time to renew commitments to making life productive, worthwhile, and achieve creative challenges.

    After all, no one is going to force us to be creative. We need to do it ourselves. So the first step is exactly this: to focus on a creative goal and take steps towards achieving it. The other step is reaching out for support, to people, books, groups, the internet. Supportiveness is such a wonderful thing, and in these days of the internet, there is so much available. I’m glad you’re here to take advantage of my offerings on my blog. And there are the two books available from my website jerrywaxler.com, the tele-courses I’ll be giving through National Association of Memoir Writers, namw.org I love to coach, etc. So my advice is, start and keep going, and open to the advice and support of helpful people. I can find you through you comment. And my contact info is available at the About Me section of my website.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

Leave a Reply