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.
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.
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.