We can read books and study a family tree to learn about our history, but that gives us only part of the picture. What’s missing are the personal stories of daily life that invite us into the lives of our ancestors and vividly illustrate where we’ve come from as a culture. These are the stories we can only get from the people who keep the stories: our elders.
Unfortunately, older people in our society often do not tell or write down their stories, either because they cannot due to disability or, more commonly, because they are not encouraged to do so.
But at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon, N.H., tales from the days of horses and buggies, the great wars and other periods of the 20th century are being spun and, more importantly, listened to and recorded. As part of a project called Reminiscences, the stories of patients age 70 and older in the hospital’s Elder Life unit are being written down, both for the historical benefit of future generations and the healing benefits of the patients themselves.
Storytelling as Therapy
The Elder Life Unit treats patients for acute illnesses, providing kidney dialysis, cancer treatment, diagnostic tests and other therapies. While hospitalized, the patients can take part in a variety of activities, including the Reminiscences storytelling project, which pairs up the elderly patients with Dartmouth University student and community volunteers who prompt and transcribe their stories.
Cynthia Barnard, the volunteer coordinator and activities director in the Elder Life unit, started the project in October 1996. Writing down stories is “kind of in my blood,” says Barnard, whose grandfather kept a daily diary from 1902 until his death in 1942. This personal experience with journaling, her professional experience as a writing teacher, and reading a magazine questionnaire designed to prompt memories of a person’s past, all led her to begin recording the stories of her Elder Life patients.
“It’s hard not to get stories from the patients,” says Barnard. “When they’re ill, sometimes it’s nice to talk about a time in their lives when they were productive, active and felt better.” In addition, she says, as patients become more and more debilitated, it helps them to feel like they are contributing by giving their stories.
Many patients are enthusiastic about telling their stories, while some insist that no one would want to read them. Barnard says most patients’ families are very interested in reading the stories, saying, for example, “We’ve been wanting Mom to do this for a while.”
Collecting Stories From a Rich Source
In the Reminiscences project, volunteers sit with patients one-on-one and ask if they would like to share any stories about their pasts. They often prompt patients by asking key questions about their lives. And sometimes the volunteers bring trays of objects, such as dolls, silver bells or other items, that can remind patients of certain eras. Relaxation and guided visualization techniques are also used to help patients feel comfortable and reach back into their memories. The volunteers then listen and transcribe the stories.
Shaylynn Teal-Canty, a recent Dartmouth graduate and former Elder Life volunteer, says she always typed up her notes immediately after sitting with a patient. “I didn’t want to forget any of the good details they gave me.
“Asking the patients to recall their memories seems to make them more comfortable in the hospital environment,” Teal-Canty says, adding that they often warm up to the staff more after they’ve participated in the project.
Once the stories are recorded, volunteers present them in a number of different forms. They often compile the stories into a personalized book that is given to the patient or the patient’s family. In a past project, a volunteer chose a symbol from each conversation with a patient, then, using the symbols, made simulated stained-glass designs out of tissue and contact paper. The most current work with the stories is the creation of a compilation book entitled Weavings: Stories, Poems and Reflections, which will include accounts from the lives of many Elder Life patients.
In addition to working with volunteers, patients are asked if there is a family member they would like to work with to write or illustrate their stories. Often they choose a grandchild, who then helps with putting the stories together.
Alfred Stevens is an Elder Life patient who took part in the Reminiscences project during a recent hospital stay. He told stories about his high-school principal and math teacher, “a jolly man, an ex-Navy boxer who weighed close to 300 pounds,” says Stevens. “But he was gentle as can be. He was somebody I looked up to all my life.”
The 81-year-old Stevens talked about how the storytelling project proved to him something he’s been told about aging: “When you get old, you can ask me what happened yesterday, and I couldn’t tell you. Ask me what happened two weeks ago, and I couldn’t tell you. But ask me about something that happened 40 or 50 years ago, and it’s just like a picture.”
Because volunteers ask questions and use idea-sparking prompts to begin conversations with the patients, they are able to recall many things that they haven’t thought of in years. “We’d be talking about one thing,” says Stevens, “and then all of a sudden it will bring up other things that I almost forgotthe things I’d forgotten had come to life.”
Creating a Tool for Healing
“The goal in Elder Life is to keep patients functioning both mentally and physically,” says Barnard. When she started her job, one of the things she noticed was that “there was nothing on the walls but staff materials,” which wasn’t helping to encourage patients to get up, walk around and be active. This situation spawned the idea for the first major project using the Reminiscences stories: a “Timeline of the 20th Century.”
Patients contributed to the Timeline by thinking back to significant dates in the past century and talking about what they remember. Then, volunteers worked with the patients to combine their remembrances with dates and facts, as well as images, articles and artifacts to represent the events. The Timeline is made up of 11 panels, one for each decade, plus an introduction, and it hangs permanently in the Elder Life unit.
“The Timeline is something to motivate patients to get up and walk around,” says Barnard. Plus, at the end of the display, there is a notebook where viewers can write down comments. Entries such as “I remember when bread was 5 cents” and “I was there when Lindbergh landed on the beach” have been written in the notebook, personalizing the project.
Looking Into the Past … Toward the Future
The stories that Elder Life patients tell range from the amazing to the mundane, but all of them offer delightful glimpses of life in the 20th century. Barnard tells of one woman who rode in a horse and buggy with her physician father during winter storms as they made house calls. But equally compelling, she says, is a simple story from a woman who recalled an occasion picking strawberries with a friend who was blind.
Teal-Canty remembers stories from a man who liked to play pranks as a child, from toilet-papering houses on Halloween to stealing apples from a neighbor’s tree. But her most memorable story is from a woman whose family emigrated from France to Canada after taking part in the French Revolution. Telling stories in the Reminiscences project helped renew the woman’s interest in tracing her family’s roots. It even helped her remember stories that her own grandparents had told her about the family history.
Serendipitously, during the time when the woman’s stories were being recorded for the Reminiscences project, her granddaughter was being born in another part of the hospital. The patient told Teal-Canty that recalling her family’s history helped her appreciate the way her family was expanding into a new century with the birth of her grandchild, and how important it is to pass on what she remembers to the next generation.
This is an indication that the Reminiscences project does much more than just record interesting or poignant memories. It provides a container for the struggles and joys that make up human life. And it gives us a reminder that, despite life’s troubleseven the inevitability of the end of lifewe can find joy, strength and healing in stories.
This article appeared in the August 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.